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May 2003

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Rod Piazza
Modern Master: The Best of Rod Piazza 1968-2003
Tone-Cool Records

Modern Masters - Rod PiazzaThis review really isn't for those of you who already know about Rod Piazza and his band, The Mighty Flyers; you're already aware that the music on Modern Master: The Best of Rod Piazza 1968-2003 is going to be top-notch. You've probably already stopped reading and are rushing out to acquire this gem of a double-CD as quickly as you can.

Instead, this review is intended to convince the rest of the readers that this disc contains a nearly complete retrospect of one of the finest showmen and harmonica players on the blues scene today.

The collection starts out with Piazza's earliest recordings, with the Dirty Blues Band, from 1968, moves on to a couple cuts from the truly inspired group Bacon Fat (which included harmonica legend George Smith), includes a sampling of selections from Piazza's own Murray Brothers Records when his band backed a number of older blues legends, covers the pre-Mighty Flyers band known as the Chicago Flying Saucer Band, and finally on to the Mighty Flyers themselves.

Another interesting sidelight is to take note of the various stage names under which Piazza recorded early in his career. In the Dirty Blues Band, he was known as Rod "Gingerman" Piazza. While recording with George Smith, he assumed the moniker "Lightnin' Rod." During the Chicago Flying Saucer Band years, Piazza is listed with the rather unique name of "Record Store Ron."

The most noteworthy fact is that Piazza's sound hasn't changed dramatically over the last 35 years --- but that's not a bad thing. Like the Mighty Flyers' live shows, the listener gets the feeling that they've heard it all before from this band, but it's so damn good that it really doesn't matter. The biggest difference is that while the basic formula of the Mighty Flyers hasn't changed over the years, their sound has become  somewhat more polished.

One of the primary strengths of Piazza's various groups is that he is never hesitant to share the spotlight with his fellow band members, giving each performer plenty of solo time. Especially notable about the Mighty Flyers is the steady succession of excellent guitar players that have been part of the band over the years, starting with Junior Watson and moving on to Alex Schultz (my personal favorite among the bunch) and Rick Holmstrom.

The other important fact to note is the influence of George "Harmonica" Smith, a vastly underrated performer who died in 1983, that can be heard throughout the disc.  Knowing about this man and the effect he had on an entire generation of West Coast harmonica players and blues bands in general is imperative to understanding the roots of Piazza's music.

The only gap in this collection is that, due to licensing restrictions, there is nothing from the Mighty Flyers' three Black Top releases that came out in the early to mid '90s. That's a shame, because those were all excellent albums, and the inclusion of a few songs from each would have made this anthology even better.

But enough analysis ... on to the music. This is uptempo blues, done in a Chicago/L.A. jump style, at its finest.

The songs are arranged chronologically. Disc one kicks off with the lone piece from the Dirty Blues Band, a cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful," done in a basic blues format.

The long out of print Bacon Fat recordings come next, with two cuts: "Juicy Harmonica" and "Up the Line." This band took a two-harmonica approach, with Piazza and Smith trading leads.

After one cut, Little Walter's "I Got to Go," billed only to Rod Piazza, the earliest incarnation of the band known today as the Mighty Flyers makes it's appearance as the Chicago Flying Saucer Band, with the two cuts here coming from a 1979 album. Current pianist (and wife of Piazza) Miss Honey and bassist Bill Stuve both came aboard at this time and appear on almost every song the rest of the way. Miss Honey especially gets to shine on the slow blues entitled "Blues For Honey."

Piazza's Murray Brothers period, from 1983 through 1985, features numbers from established blues performers Shakey Jake, Jimmy Rogers and Pee Wee Crayton, all backed by the Mighty Flyers, or some combination of the band. The Harpburn album, released on Murray Brothers in 1985 and later re-released by Black Top, is represented by the smokin' title cut.

The rest of disc one contains one cut each from a pair of 1985 albums, including "Texas Twister" from the excellent File Under Rock.

The remainder of the anthology is all billed to Rod Piazza & the Might Flyers, with the exception of one song. The second disc picks up with another two songs from Harpburn, followed by the humorous "How Come You Women Look So Good" and the title cut from the 1986 Murray Brothers album So Glad to Have the Blues.

The collection's eight-year gap from 1986 until 1994 is due to the unavailability of the Black Top recordings. After the successful run with the now-defunct New Orleans label, the Mighty Flyers moved over to even smaller Big Mo, releasing a live album, Live at B.B. King's. Piazza's sly humorous number "Southern Lady" and the heavier "Murder in the First Degree" are included from that disc. An unreleased gem comes from that same live show in the incendiary "Chicken Shack Boogie," that will have you ready to pound the dance floor, all the while wondering why that tune didn't make the original release.

Another unreleased number, "Blue Midnight," was recorded at the 1998 W.C. Handy Award show.

The Mighty Flyers signed with current label Tone-Cool in 1997; five songs from their two albums for the Boston record company are included.

The collection's final number comes from guitarist Kid Ramos' 2001 Greasy Kid's Stuff album, on Evidence Records. Piazza made a guest appearance as the harmonica accompanist, blowing away on his own composition "Devil's Foot."

So, there you have it. This double-CD belongs in every blues fan's collection. In addition to the music contained within, there's also a video and slideshow that can be played on your computer, as well as a booklet with several great photos.

Get it!

--- Bill Mitchell 

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