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(Severn Records 0032 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/22/2004)
Innovation in music is a worthy quest. It moves the artform ahead, though frequently not to everyone's liking. But sometimes performing a familiar style really well is all that's needed for a memorable recording. That is especially the case with what could be called low-tech music, styles that place an emphasis on the traditions and value hewing to the original sounds. Blues is a sterling example, and this week we have a fine new recording by a guitarist who has created a CD that stylistically could have been made anytime in the past 50 years. It's by Alex Schultz, and his new release is called Think About It.
Despite the high profile of electric guitarists in the blues, Alex Schultz has been largely content to be the loyal sideman and studio musician, performing on some 40 albums in the last 20 years, serving as a member of Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, and recording with the late blues harmonica virtuoso William Clarke, Big Joe and the Dynaflows, Chicago bluesman Tad Robinson, the great Chess Records blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and many others. His repertoire is wide-ranging, but he has gravitated toward upbeat jump-band grooves and West-Coast style blues. Now he is out with his first solo album, and he concentrates on that style for a CD that gets everything right. The musicianship is understated but very tasteful. There's a lot of great grooves from shuffles to jump-band style swing to the kind of early soul sound of Ray Charles, enhanced by a great horn section, and the kind of easy-going atmosphere that makes this a CD you could listen to all day.
Alex Schultz does not consider himself a vocalist, so that is perhaps why he waited this long to make a CD under his own name. But instead of trying to sing, he brings in three different vocalists with whom he has worked, Tad Robinson, Finis Tasby, and Linwood Slim. For this West-Coast recording, he was joined by a band consisting of two Italian musicians, Alberto Marsico on organ and Gio Rossi on drums. Also on hand is veteran studio bass player Larry Taylor and saxophonist Mando Dorame, as well as members of the horn section from the Royal Crown Revue band.
Schultz made most of this recording in the fall of 2001, but it lay dormant for a while. Schultz wrote in the liner notes that he feels his strength is as an ensemble player, hence he purposely avoided the spotlight save for his restrained guitar solos. But then he was urged by friends and fans to include some instrumental pieces, so he re-entered the studio in the spring of 2003 to lay down some tracks with a somewhat different band, though with a similar classic early rhythm and blues sound. The mix of tracks added to the CD's strength by providing some variety, and also giving a better opportunity for the spotlight-shy Schultz to stretch out. In keeping with the period sound, Schultz uses an older-type hollow-body jazz-style guitar, and puts a whimsical line in the booklet, "No Stratocasters were used in the making of this recording," a reference to the Fender solid-body electric guitar that is the favorite of rock players and rockers who want to play the blues. The CD also exclusively uses acoustic bass.
The use of the three different singers also provides a nice mixture, with their slightly different styles. Finis Tasby is more the blues shouter, Linwood Slim has jazzy tendencies and excels at the laid-back swing numbers, while Tad Robinson takes a more soulful approach showing his influence by Ray Charles.
While there are some original tunes including the instrumentals, most of the material dates from the period the CD evokes, with songs by Chuck Willis, Wynonie Carr, and Jimmy McCracklin.
The album opens with a track featuring Tasby's vocals. Done Got Over It epitomizes the sound of the CD, with a great laid-back blues groove, and the horns adding to classic late 1940s admosphere. <<>>
The energy is cranked up a notch for the next piece, Chuck Willis' tune Be Good, Be Gone, with a vocal by Linwood Slim. It's a textbook example of the right way to do jump-band music, swinging hard but always with a relaxed feel. <<>>
Tad Robinson shows his Ray Charles influence, which is not so apparent on his own albums, on the track Act Right. There's a hint of the Gospel influence that was the Ray Charles trademark. The track in a highlight of this fine album. <<>>
It's good that Schultz was convinced to include some instrumentals. The original piece called Big Time, which features the alternate personel, including Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers' bassist Bill Stuve, is nearly perfection for this kind of relaxed blues hinting at late night smoky clubs. Schultz gets a chance to solo through much of the tune and really shows his level of taste. <<>>
Vocalist Linwood Slim serves up the CD's jazz side on the song I Don't Want Your Money Honey. Saxophonist Mando Dorame puts on his best Coleman Hawkins sound in this gem of a performance. <<>>
Think, written by Jimmy McCracklin, is an example of Schultz and company turning up the energy level a bit, with a Chicago-style shuffle beat. Vocalist Finis Tasby rises to the occasion. <<>>
Tad Robinson performs one of his original songs, Let's Start Again with the kind of great swing groove at which this album excels. <<>> Schultz also gets a chance for one of those guitar solos that says exactly what need to be said, and nothing more. <<>>
The CD ends with a bit of a departure stylistically, Walkin' and Talkin', written and sung by Tasby. The group gets into a lowdown swamp blues sound, and again succeeds nicely. <<>>
There's hardly a startlingly innovative or very original note on Alex Schultz's new CD Think About It, but it's still one those nearly perfect albums of music in a classic style, played superbly and authentically. Nor is there anything flashy about this CD. But Schultz has recreated the sound of 1940s to mid 1950s blues, and the original music that was called "rhythm and blues," as well as its offshoot jump-band music. The CD has a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, and the rhythic grooves are danceable but laid back and never frenetic. The combination of the three different vocalists taking turns as well as the inclusion of instrumental tracks provides a varied but still coherent sound. Even at a fairly generous 53 minutes in length with 13 tracks, it's a CD you'll wish would go on for much longer.
Our grade for sound quality is an A. The recording captures a kind of ambient room sound of everyone playing together, while not compromising on audio quality just to have a "vintage" sound as many retro-style recordings do. There is also a decent dynamic range, with minimal volume compression applied to the recording.
The music on this CD comes from the period when the blues was going "uptown," borrowing from jazz, and raising the level of musicianship just before rock and roll hit in the 1950s. A number of groups in recent years have been striving to revive that sound. Few do it as well as Alex Schultz on his new CD.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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