Various Artists

Chess Blues Piano Greats (Chess 50th Anniversary Collection)

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Back before the electric guitar became the primary focal instrument of the blues, two-fisted piano players dominated the genre, and record companies flocked to record them. Chess Records was no exception, and this two-disc, 45-track anthology shines the spotlight on four of the best who ever sat on the piano stool at the Chess studios. The first disc begins with 20 tracks from Eddie Boyd (eight of them previously unissued in the U.S.), full of introspective reflection and the darkest of moods. Kicking off with one of his big hits, "24 Hours," and the dourness of Boyd's work reaches epic proportions on tunes like "I Began to Sing the Blues," "Third Degree," and "Blues for Baby," the latter featuring stellar jazz guitar runs and chordal work from Robert Jr. Lockwood. Even on uptempo numbers like "Hard Time Getting Started," "Nothing But Trouble" and "Just a Fool," the somber nature of Boyd's delivery cuts through everything, underscoring the bouncier lilt of these tracks with a much darker cast. Finishing out the disc are four tracks from Otis Spann, comprising the A- and B-sides of his lone 1954 single for the label ("It Must Have Been The Devil" and the instrumental "Five Spot," both sides featuring a rare maverick uncredited appearance by B.B. King on a Chess record) and two sides from a 1956 session that stayed unreleased for several decades, both featuring shattering harp work from Walter Horton. The second disc collects 18 sides from Willie Mabon (three sides previously unreleased), including his big hits "I Don't Know," "I'm Mad," "Poison Ivy" and Willie Dixon's "The Seventh Son." Mabon was much more an R&B novelty entertainer than a hard bluesman (think Cripple Clarence Lofton as opposed to Big Maceo Merriweather), but his more down-home side comes up for air on "Willie's Blues," pitting solid piano work against Dixieland trumpet growls. The anthology finishes out with three tracks from Chess session stalwart Lafayette Leake, who backed everyone from Chuck Berry to Howlin' Wolf and yet remains Chess Records' true mystery man. Lafayette was most elusive when it came time to record under his own name, but a stray instrumental from 1957 ("Slow Leake") stands alongside two live tracks recorded in Montreux, Switzerland in 1972 as his meager frontman legacy for the label. Although there's no Sunnyland or Memphis Slim aboard (two other Chess piano greats equally worthy of a separate anthology), this is a fine collection that is most deserving of an encore.

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