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August 2005

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Various Artists
Chicago Blues Harmonica Project -
Diamonds In The Rough


Diamonds in the Rough

Chicago Blues Harmonica Project - Diamonds In The Rough (Severn Records) brings to disc six excellent, but under recorded, Windy City harp players for a very good collection of a dozen blues standards. What's notable about this anthology is how fresh and vibrant each of the recordings come across. While most of the songs here are familiar blues classics, one doesn't get the feeling that they've heard the same stuff over and over.

The CD has the same overall vibe as Alligator Records' groundbreaking Living Chicago Blues series of the 1970s and the New Bluebloods collection of the late '80s, presenting lesser-known but deserving artists to an audience outside their home base.

The disc opens with septuagenarian Dusty Brown, who recorded some sides for Parrot Records in 1955. His rendition of Little Walter's "I Got To Go" shows that Brown still has it, with a sound belying his age. His other contribution to the album is the dirge-like "He Don't Love You," featuring great piano work by Mark Brumbach.

The youngest performer on the compilation, 32-year-old Omar Coleman, is a barber by day and a bluesman by night, often appearing as a member of John Primer's working band. Coleman delivers a funkier, more contemporary sound that is still grounded in the classic sound. He sings in a raw, yet effective, style, sounding a lot like Howlin' Wolf on the Willie Cobbs-penned "You Don't Love Me." Coleman puts out an extended harmonica solo on his other number, "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone."

The most technically proficient harp blower is Russ Green, who studied with Sugar Blue. The latter's influence shows in Green's style with more complex and innovative riffs. He's also a strong singer, making Green one of the biggest surprises of the CD. He gives a more contemporary treatment of Wolf's "How Many More Years" and does a fine version of Little Walter's "How Many More Years."

Larry Cox first came to Chicago in the 1950s as a pool shark, later starting to play harmonica in the neighborhood blues joints. The 68-year-old Cox doesn't stray far from the classic Chicago sound and is more derivative of the masters than anyone else on the collection. His two songs are good versions of Little Walter's "Mean Old World" and Jimmy Reed's "Goin' To New York."

Despite his years of experience on the Chicago scene and his work with Elmore James, Little Addison never recorded in his own name prior to these cuts. He presents one of the only originals, a nice slow blues titled "Respect Me." His cover of James' "Look On Yonder Wall" has a big, full sound highlighted by Brumbach's piano playing.

Sadly, the sixth performer on the disc, Harmonica Khan #1, passed away before the release of this album. His sound is the most primitive of any of the players, with a Sonny Terry solo street performer type of gig. Khan breathes new life into blues classics "Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "Next Time You See Me."

The tight backing band on must cuts, in addition to the aforementioned Brumbach, consists of Rick Kreher (guitar), Little Frank (guitar), Pat McKeever (bass) and Twist Turner (drums).

Diamonds In The Rough is an essential purchase for any lover of Chicago blues, especially for harmonica freaks. Kudos to Severn Records for releasing it.

---Bill Mitchell

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