Luella Miller

Complete Recorded Works (1926-1928)

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Even among the ranks of marginalized old-time blues singers, Luella Miller is singularly obscure and sadly underrated. Conventionally assessed as an unimaginative moaner who tended to sing the same redundant blues melody over and over again, this woman has been an easy target for persnickety music critics and deserves to be reevaluated. Trying to apply normal entertainment standards to music like this is a pointless exercise in postmodern impatience. If her "complete" recordings are to be laid end to end and absorbed sequentially without interruption, the listener must suspend all preconceived expectations and defer to the overwhelming sense of ritual directly resulting from what Anthony Braxton might call a repetition structure. In this sense, what some folks consider limitations are really assets. Against an intimate and unperturbed background the singer's emotional emphases stand out in high relief, while each song's formal simplicity accentuates every nuance of the instrumental accompaniments. Guitarist Lonnie Johnson is heard playing the violin, an instrument he used while performing with Charlie Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs and on dozens of blues sides recorded under his own name during this time period, using similarly simple, unvaried melodies. The identity of an expressive cornet player heard on five of these sides has never been verified, although for years it was assumed to be Dewey Jackson. Current research suggests instead the presence of Andrew "Big Babe" Webb. Miller's pianists included James Johnson (not to be confused with Harlem stride piano legend James P. Johnson), Elmore Booker, and quite possibly Jimmy Blythe. Additional guitar, banjo, and mandolin add flavor to these deceptively uncomplicated performances. Luella Miller sang about real life in a strong and soulful voice. Those who expect a lot of variety and melodic invention might become disappointed victims of their own preconceptions. Open-minded listeners who humbly submit to the ritual magic of the blues will likely discover all kinds of surprises herein. While this disc purports to be a compilation of her "complete recorded works," 11 originally unissued titles including alternate takes are not included here. Perhaps these ultra-rare sides appear somewhere else in the vast Document catalog. The most difficult aspect of this disc is the cover art, which is strikingly difficult to look at. A strange graphic based upon a photographic likeness but morphed into an eerily dehumanized (possibly decapitated) visage is set into a circle with stars circling round the bottom half, looking for all the world like a macabre, weirdly nonsensical antique wooden nickel.

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