It’s as if the melody and refrain to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” has taken on this verse for so many blues musicians – “We’re going to Greaseland, Greaseland …we’re going to Greaseland.” Yes, Big Harp George is the latest in a growing number of mostly emerging artists that are calling on the talents of multi-instrumentalist and producer Kid Andersen and the magic of his home based studio.
West Coast-based Big Harp George, aka George Bisharat, is unique among harmonica players. While many will bring out the cumbersome chromatic harmonica for a tune or two, Big Harp George wields it as his major instrument. Hence, not only is the sound fuller and different, it better lends itself to larger accompaniment. Thus, George wanted to surround himself with a larger band. Ten players appear here including not only Andersen but also guitarist Little Charlie Baty and great blowing from Michael Peloquin -saxes and Mike Rinta – trombone and tuba.
George wrote the dozen originals, some that are current and topical like “Internet Honey” (online dating) “Alternative Facts,” (you know who), and “I Wanna Know” (sexual harassment). Like many of the original bluesmen, George wants to hold up a mirror reflecting society back to us. “I’m no Gil Scott-Heron but I do put it out there, so that like-minded people know they’re not alone,” says George. He prefers being subtle to being heavy handed. “I use humor to highlight how ridiculous some of this stuff is,” notes George.
This is George’s third album, depicting his growth both as a lyricist and a band leader building an ever bigger sound. In addition to the conventional blues sounds, he brings in a Latin jazz influence due to his exposure to Brazilian singer Angela RoRo. On the balance he offers this, “Overall, I’d say this album reflects my growing addiction to playing with horns. Some songs spin on a Memphis/New Orleans axis-odd, because I’ve never lived anywhere near there – but with clear Chicago echoes from Otis Spann and Otis Rush.” Interestingly, unlike many of those styles, this one features few extended solos. The emphasis is on the ensemble.
Big Harp George, like most harmonicists, started on the diatonic. (Not sure anyone ever began on chromatic). He cites the late Paul deLay as his major influence. You’ll hear how seamlessly the chromatic fits in with a swinging horn, pounding piano sound on his opener, an ode to the aging, “Down to the Rite Aid.” His fun poking lines like “I know she’s only two clicks away” in “Internet Honey” will get you smiling. Amusing lines pepper “Alternative Facts” too. “I Wanna Know’ carries the Brazilian motifs. George becomes balladeer on “Nobody’s Listening.” The swinging instrumental “In the First Place” serves as an interlude for the return of funky blues in “Standing in the Weather,” featuring one of George’s best economical solos. George’s humorous side shows up again in “Bulletproof” as Chris Burns shines on piano. The smoldering “Cold Snap by the Bay” features Burns, some killer guitar from Andersen, and Peloquin’s tenor sax.The stomping “Just Calm Yourself” belies its tile and features Loralee Christensen on duet vocals. The title track is a horn-driven, B3 organ supported instrumental spotlighting Baty’s jazz-like guitar. The closer, “Lord Make Me Chaste” has George’s irreverent, fun lines, as if he is winking at us – “Lord make me chaste, but not yet” replete with Christensen and Derick Hughes on vocals while Burns’ organ takes us to church.
While this won’t receive the accolades like the bigger names in blues, it should. For its combination of songwriting, musicianship, and its relaxed, unforced approach this is clearly one of the strongest blues releases this year.
- Jim Hynes