Blue and Lonesome

Little Walter

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Blue and Lonesome Review

by Eugene Chadbourne

Previously unreleased or outtake material can be dreck, true, but sometimes it is just the opposite case. Part of what can be exciting is the sense of a particular artist's world expanding as listeners get to hear brand new examples of the artist's genius. In the case of Little Walter, the Chicago blues harmonica ace, many blues fans felt that they had already heard everything this artist had done -- and probably many times to boot -- when these French albums were originally released. Hearing a whole bunch of new tracks was a thrill, and in this case one that can be repeated, since the power of these tracks does not come from their previously unheard status alone. All are first-rate performances, and many are purely great. Why some of these tracks would have languished on a shelf is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps not if one considers some of the boorish comments made about musicians such as this by their slave lords, the brothers Leonard and Marshall Chess. Little Walter is one of those players who one of the brothers once described as only "primitive" or "rudimentary." He is actually a great figure in American music, some think one of the most important Chicago blues artists, but why expect someone who almost became a millionaire off his music to know that? When leading his own sessions, his approach effortlessly combined the country and Delta blues legacy of his old boss, Muddy Waters, with the influence of modern jazz, swing, and R&B music. The combination gives his blues recordings a real punch, his choice of harmonica sound often helping to define which of the possible influences will have the strongest effect on a track's groove.

He has two completely distinctive harp approaches. When playing the standard harmonica through amplification, his sound is instantly recognizable, and it is one of those musical presences that can knock one over with one note, like Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane to name a few others in his league. His choice of weapon for the jazzier numbers is always the chromatic harmonica, and he surely helped set the standard for new approaches to instrumentals spotlighting this appealing instrument. Every arrangement here demonstrates that at least somebody was thinking about coming up with unique arrangements and new grooves and, from the sound of the interesting (and sometimes mildly obscene) studio patter that has been preserved and edited between the tracks, Little Walter was one of the hands-on dudes. He always seems to have a sense of the perfect tempo for a tune, sometimes using the rhythm itself to unseat expectations, such as the version of "Going Down Slow," a blues warhorse renewed brilliantly here by using a slightly faster shuffle. There is also fine lead guitar playing from Robert Jr. Lockwood, a player who was strongly influenced by Little Walter's direction and continued combining many of the same styles throughout his career. Pianists Henry Gray andOtis Spann also provide excellent playing. The rhythm sections often feature drummer Fred Below, above all others in timekeeping skills in this music, as well as other familiar names from the Chicago scene. Much of this music was eventually released in other collections by Chess itself; there is good reason to believe the original company did not authorize this release, and that the French company's mere possession of the tapes was the work of a light-fingered Louis. No information is provided about composers.

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