Memphis Slim

Boogie Woogie

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In his powerfully insightful book of blues-inspired poetry Fattening Frogs for Snakes -- Delta Sound Suite, John Sinclair cites blues and jazz scholar Robert Palmer as a source for the theory that the linguistic taproots of the word "boogie" probably reach back to West Africa, as the Hausa "buga" and the Mandingo "bug" both mean "to beat" as in "to beat a drum." This makes sense given the rhythmic potency of boogie-woogie, a style that emerged during the early 20th century among Southern black laborers who lived, toiled, and partied near the very bottom of the U.S. social hierarchy, usually living in an environment that was secluded from the rest of the population and often engaging in the production of turpentine. There are other distinct levels of meaning and purpose here: the subject of blackness, the act of partying in order to blow off steam, and the performer's utility function as a provider of music in order to keep the participants from brawling. Sometimes carelessly criticized for its apparent simplicity, the boogie is as complex as human nature itself. Popularized by white big bands during the 1930s and '40s, boogie-woogie also helped to spawn the eminently exploitable genres of R&B and rock & roll. By the end of the 1960s, pianist Memphis Slim openly made a point of varying the textures and tempos of his music, noting that many of his friends and contemporaries sometimes slid into ruts of predictability. Comfortably established in Paris during the year 1971, Slim demonstrated his incredible technique and refreshing versatility in a magnificent series of blues and boogie-woogie piano duets with drummer Michel Denis. The entire spectrum of movement is covered here, from slow ruminations to lightning-quick fisticuffs. While there are clearly discernible reverberations from Slim's early idol Roosevelt Sykes, one may also pick up on the influences of Jimmy Yancey and Pete Johnson. The album is entirely instrumental with the possible exception of "Ouargla," named for a city in Saharan East Central Algeria. This track begins with off-mike remarks and a humorous vocal outburst. Beautifully alive with musical portraits of his wife Christina and daughter Nathalie, vibrant with colorful sketches of Parisian nightspots and fancy cars, Memphis Slim's richly rewarding Boogie Woogie album stands with the very best in his entire recorded legacy, and belongs among the greatest achievements ever realized in this genre.

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