Brian Berkowitz known professionally as Johnny Iguana is a highly regarded Chicago blues pianist having toured or recorded with Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, James Cotton, Eddy Clearwater, Buddy Guy, Lurrie Bell, Matthew Skoller and Lil’ Ed. More importantly he appears on three notable Larry Skoller produced projects: the 2009 Grammy nominated and Blues Music Award winning “Chicago Blues: A Living History”, and its sequel 2011’s “The (R)evolution Continues”, and on the 2015 “Muddy Waters 100” tribute. Iguana also fronts his band The Claudettes, with co-founder drummer Michael Caskey, and has released five albums with them since 2013.
Iguana has appeared on Delmark previously as a sideman but this is his debut as a leader. Producer Larry Skoller is once again at the helm to help steer the sets concept. Eight of the twelve tracks feature vocals on songs written and first recorded by some of the blues’ most important originators. The piano played a major role in each of the original performances and Iguana does his best to get into some of the stylings of his piano playing predecessors. Guesting are some of Chicago’s best vocalists including Billy Boy Arnold, Lil’ Ed, John Primer, Matthew Skoller and Phillip Michael-Scales; while guitarists include Billy Flynn, and Bob Margolin. No bassist is present on these eight tracks as Iguana evokes the basslines from the wood and hammers of the studios 100-year-old Kingsbury piano, with Caskey or Kenny Smith on drums. Also featured are four reimagined instrumentals from Iguana’s Claudettes repertoire with Bill Dickens on bass.
The set opens with Primer singing on Roosevelt Sykes’ classic “44 Blues” while Iguana’s piano is styled after Memphis Slim who played on a version released by Willie Dixon on Folkways Records in 1959; Margolin sits in on guitar. Primer sings and plays guitar on Dixon’s “Down in the Bottom”; Iguana’s piano akin to that of Little Johnny Jones who played on Howlin’ Wolf’s 1961 Chess Records version. Scales sings on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane”.
Slide guitarist Lil’ Ed plays and takes the vocal on both Elmore James “Shake Your Moneymaker” with Iguana emulating the piano of “Big Moose” Walker; and on Otis Spann’s “Burning Fire” with Smith banging out the beats. Matthew Skoller sings and plays harp on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Stop Breaking Down” with Iguana once again channeling Spann.
The harp wielding Arnold sings on both Sonny Boy’s “You’re an Old Lady” with Iguana pounding out a Big Maceo influenced boogie; and again on Bill Broonzy’s 1939 “Hot Dog Mama” with piano fashioned after Joshua Altheimer who played on the original. On these the guitarist is Billy Flynn.
Iguana’s piano instrumentals, featuring the rhythm section of drummer Caskey and bassist Dickens, include the New Orleans sounding “Big Easy Women”; the Mose Allison inspired “Hammer and Tickle”; the jazzy “Motorhome”, and the fabulous “Land of Precisely Three Dances”. Although re-arranged the latter three first appeared on The Claudettes’ 2013 album “Infernal Piano Plot Hatched”.
Iguana combines his reverence for the past blues piano masters with his own adventurous passion on this enlightening Chicago blues outing, as he takes his rightful place among the master class.