The seemingly endless career of blues singer and guitarist B.B. King is documented in great detail, a discography rich enough in both bulls-eyes and misfires to keep the proprietor of any shooting range content for an equal length of time, whatever that turns out to be. Some of these records stand out in terms of industry success, this status hopefully grooving in lockstep with artistic achievement. The 1983 Blues 'N' Jazz wound up winning a Grammy for the best blues recording of the year. Without basically disagreeing with that particular status, many music critics nonetheless pointed out that King's recordings from between two and three decades earlier were better. It is both understandable and expected that critics want to establish themselves as hipper than the Grammy awards. While it is a nice change for something old to be considered better than something new, this particular argument leads nowhere -- despite being true. Of course, rhythm & blues and rock & roll records sounded better in the '50s and '60s. A long list of things that were likewise much better back then could be easily drummed up, perhaps with a blues backbeat: blue jeans, American cars, sodas, hot dogs, action films, Hawaiian shirts. It goes on and on. Appreciation of the here and now is, as opposed to nostalgia, something of a life lesson. The subject is discussed between parents and children more frequently then it comes up in music reviews, especially of albums where one of the lyrical directions is to "Sell My Monkey." The here and now of B.B. King at almost any point in his career was that he kept a band together, this ensemble growing in size as the bandleader's fame and fees expanded.
Blues 'N' Jazz is a terrific documentation of King's big band during the '80s, sexed up just perfectly with choice guest stars. Tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb's presence was duly noted by hipsters one and all in a decade when soulful saxophonists once taken for granted began to be feted, even lauded with documentary films. Shorted on appreciation as always, although some of the Grammy glory must have rubbed off, the journeymen of the King road band enterprise give off a huge part of this project's glow. Damning with faint praise, critics approaching the album from retrospect admit that it is a different stew entirely then later King hits sarcastically dubbed "blues lite." Sure it is, since King's touring ensemble always plays with a lot more heart than that.
Like Ray Charles, King did well enough on tour to keep an accompanying ensemble together that was both sizeable and strong. In the rock & roll era the groups of these rhythm & blues crossover stars represented some of the main work available for many fine jazz musicians from the big-band era. The presence of these individuals is as reliable a factor in King's music from both the '50s and '80s as the man's ability to bend a string.
Trumpeter Calvin Owens began serving as King's first music director three decades before Blues 'N' Jazz was recorded. Owens' second reign as King's bandleader, beginning in 1978, was in a sense crowned by the Grammy. The trumpeter was responsible for all the arrangements, making an effective stab at the '50s sound with "A Broken Heart," a tune dating back to a youthful King's relationship with producer Joe Bihari. Tenor saxophonist Donald Wilkerson is another of the players, all of whom are worth noting. In contrast to a King band regular such as Owens, Wilkerson was something of a recluse who played almost entirely in the Houston area; the King album seems to be one of the few recordings made by the Texan during the later part of his career. Earlier he had enjoyed several stints with the Ray Charles band. Producer Sidney Seidenberg is to be commended for whatever efforts might have been involved in securing Wilkerson -- a nice touch.
Less expected on this type of album is a vibraphone player, although the combination of electric guitar and the tuned percussion instrument played with mallets does have a '50s and '60s vibe to it, a good vibe at that. Warren Chiasson came into the King recording with a background in the groups of pianist George Shearing and trumpeter Chet Baker. Stylistically, the vibraphonist has much more in common with guitarists such as Tal Farlow or Charlie Christian: two of the finest guitarists in history, neither of which could be described as playing with King's particular sense of brevity, dynamics, and punctuation. Nonetheless the combination works well, underscoring the influences running back and forth between swing and rhythm & blues. King wanted to present just that combination with this set of nine tracks, only one of which runs past the five-minute mark. Jazz is much more than just an influence in a rhythm section featuring veterans Major Holley on bass and Oliver Jackson on drums, the latter a member of many classic jazz combos. Trumpeter Woody Shaw is more of a modernist, to be sure. His features are proud moments for modern jazz, showing that progressive players can just as easily get down with the blues and in fact have a great deal they can add to the genre. Blues 'N' Jazz was tracked during what was King's final birthday in his fifties -- in this case the age and not the era. His 59th birthday cake adorns the front cover, looking tasty and certainly representing a more tasteful celebration of the great man's birthday than the dirty joke in circulation about King's wife having his initials tattooed on her buttocks.