Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise

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When I listen to this album, I hear city and country blues, gospel, jazz, funk, soul, even a hint of rap. The sounds of the Mississippi Delta, the street scenes in New Orleans, the hard-nosed Chicago blues sound and songs from churches and plantations. It revers the past but infuses a fresh modern take that is so engaging. I am so impressed with this album – And Still I Rise, the debut by the Heritage Blues Orchestra. It is simply that good.

The grit of low-down country and urban blues to bold brass, the hand-clapping, hustle and bustle of gospel to fiery postmodern, jazz-infused horn arrangements, the haunting cries of work songs to pulsating drums that reach back to the roots of it all.

The first of the twelve tracks on And Still I Rise is a rousing rendition of Son House’s “Clarksdale Moan”. “C-Line Woman” is an African chant, pulsating and persistent. “Big-Legged Woman” is one of the more traditional tracks – straight up blues, but with a funky horn section that transcends the genre – it also contains some beautiful harp playing. Next there’s the immortal Muddy Waters classic “Catfish Blues” but reworked again with great harp work and a big band brass feel. Here is a live version – not great sound, but you’ll get the idea.

The solemn dirge of an interpretation of Leadbelly’s “Go Down Hannah” starts with some pretty fast talking which belies what follows. The exquisite vocals are supreme and complemented by chain-gang moans. What follows is the magnificent three-part harmonies against a slippery slide guitar in their head-nodding version of “Get Right Church” – here’s the official video of that track.

Don’t get in the way of “In The Morning” – it’s pacy, uplifting and inspiring. “Levee Camp Holler” is stark, a soulful cry for help, despair dripping through its length, with not a hint of instruments. “Chilly Jordan” is a traveling, finger -picking blues number.

Then there is the album’s closing piece “Hard Times”. This song, in three movements, demonstrates it all – the traditional call-and-response between a lone voice and guitar, a bewitching horn composition and a final transition to a roof-raising funk jam that leaps out and shoves you onto the dance floor. The covers (those already mentioned and ones of Eric Bibb and Alan Lomax) blend seamlessly with the original and traditional tracks.

As the official website proclaims – “The music evokes chain gangs and juke joints, orchestra pits and church pews, and even to back porches”.

So who are these people? Well it’s a little confusing – three members feature on the album cover and a fourth in the above background shot. On the website, there are six bios.

JUNIOR MACK – vocals and guitar. A self-taught musician, playing since the age of nine and comfortable with playing gospel, country blues and big city blues. He has worked and collaborated with many major American recording artists including The Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks, Robert Randolph, Dickey Betts, Chaka Khan, Magic Slim, Joe Louis Walker and Honeyboy Edwards.

BILL SIMS. JR – vocals rand multi-instrumentalist. Raised in rural Georgia, he began playing piano at age four and by fourteen he was playing professionally in a r’n’b group. A Warner Bros. recording artist, Bill Sims is also an accomplished musical director for the theatre and movies. His film credits include Lackawanna Blues, Miss Ruby’s House, American Gangster and the recent Cadillac Records. He was also the subject of a critically acclaimed PBS documentary, An American Love Story in 1999.

CHANEY SIMS – vocals. A native New Yorker Chaney’s voice is steeped in field hollers, work songs, spirituals, blues, soul and r’n’b. (And what a voice!). She has shared the stage with her father Bill Sims Jr., Odetta, Phylicia Rashad, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Guy Davis, poet Staceyann Chin, Climbing Poetree and Ganessa James.

BRUNO WILHELM – saxophone, arranger and composer. A seasoned bandleader composer and arranger. He has led numerous original projects in straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz. He composes and arranges for instrumentalists and vocalists across the musical spectrum including World, Hip-Hop and Rap as well as for theater and dance performance artists. He has also composed and played with various african artists in Western and Central Africa.

VINCENT BUCHER – harmonica, vocals, songwriter and arranger. He was discovered playing in the Paris Metro by American master harmonica player Sugar Blue, who encouraged him to play professionally. Vincent has accompanied blues greats including Louisiana Red, Jimmy Johnson and Sonny Rhodes. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as French blues stars Bill Deraime and Patrick Verbeke, pop and rock music star CharlElie Couture and Malian singer-guitarist Boubacar Traoré and other notable African musicians.

KENNY “BEEDY EYES” SMITH – drums. Son of legendary ex-Muddy Waters drum man Willie “Big Eyes’’ Smith, Kenny is currently the most sought-after blues session drummer in Chicago. Some of his recording credits—over 50 albums—and touring engagements include Pinetop Perkins, Homesick James, Buddy Guy, Chicago Blues: A Living History, Big Jack Johnson, Aaron Burton, Junior Wells and the Legendary Blues Band and many others.

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Author: Rob Dickens

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