Otis Spann

Sweet Giant of the Blues

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One of the classic bluesmen Bob Thiele signed to his Bluestime label in 1969, Otis Spann is best known as Muddy Waters' sideman, but in the '60s he often stepped into the spotlight himself. Sweet Giant of the Blues, a 1969 session for Bluestime released in 1970, is one of his very last albums -- he died at the age of 40 in April 1970, around the time this hit the stores -- and if it can't be called definitive, it's nevertheless a robust example of his gifts. Sweet Giant of the Blues isn't definitive because it is indeed tied to its time, like so many of Thiele's productions for Bluestime. He teamed Spann with younger players raised on blues and rock, giving the supporting musicians -- anchored by drummer Paul Humphrey and bassist Max Bennett, along with guitarist Louie Shelton but saxophonist/flutist Tom Scott often pops up -- lots of room to roam in solos and also grooves, letting the rhythms breathe in a way they never did on Muddy's sessions. This is loose and unpredictable in a predictable fashion, delving into a little bit of Latin beats and rhumba and a whole lot of rock & roll. Unlike the Turner record, this focuses on new songs -- many written by Spann, but Thiele co-wrote "Moon Blues" so slow it flirts with a dirge ("Bird in a Cage," another crawling 12-bar, in contrast, feels much livelier and not just due to the fuzz; the band digs down deep here) -- which makes Sweet Giant of the Blues feel contemporary in a very strict fashion; this is the music of the time, the point where tradition met hippie jams. As such, it now seems somewhat dated -- particularly with regard to the fuzz and the elongated rhythms -- but Spann seems to seize the changes and enjoys playing with the band, never trying to play against his support. He's lively enough that it only winds up accentuating his early loss.

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