Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise – Raisin’ Music

Modern blues is alive and well.

Published on January 16, 2012

Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise – Raisin’ Music

Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise – Raisin’ Music RM 1010, 48:56 [2/28/2012] ****1/2: 

(Chaney Sims – handclaps, vocals; Bill Simms Jr. – electric, acoustic guitar; handclaps, vocals; Junior Mack – electric guitar, electric slide guitar, dobro, vocals; Vincent Bucher – harmonica; Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith – drums, percussion; with Bruno Wilhelm – tenor saxophone, horn arrangements; Kenny Rampton – first trumpet; Steve Wiseman – second trumpet; Clark Gayton – trombone, sousaphone, tuba)

Modern blues is alive and well. Each generation carries on the tradition of this uniquely American genre. From New York, The Heritage Blues Orchestra is carrying the torch with an exciting debut, And Still I Rise. Veteran blues player and mentor, Bill Simms Jr. (whose credits include Lackawanna Blues, American Gangster and Cadillac Records) lends his considerable talents to this project. Along with the gifted Junior Mack (Allman Brothers, Chaka Khan, Magic Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and many others), a guitar-based powerhouse of an ensemble pays homage and reinvents the Afro-American idiom of blues. Sims Jr.’s daughter, Chaney (who has shared a stage with Bill Simms Jr., Odetts, Bernard “Pretty” Purdy and Guy Davis) brings a versatile, artistic vocal style to the mix.

From the opening downbeat of Son House’s “Clarksdale Moan”, The Heritage Blues Orchestra announces their presence with forceful distinction. Mack rips off some impressive licks and is joined by a jazzy horn chorus. Vincent Bucher combines his wailing harp play with the group. Hand claps and ferocious drumming by Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith anchor the relentless pace of the music. The band interprets other legendary composers. An up-tempo Chicago blues rendition of Muddy waters’ “Catfish Blues” soars with eruptive play and gritty vocals. Bruno Wilhelm’s horn arrangements have big band panache and lend sophistication to the jams. Bill Sims Jr. plays edgy guitar hooks and sings with a blues man’s soul. Another cover is performed on Leadbelly’s “Go Down Hannah” This song has a melodic trumpet introduction as Chaney Sims embraces this gospel testimony with fervor. The rendition has the resonance of a spiritual or work song.

While the band approximates modern structures, there is a distinctive link to roots music. “Big-Legged Woman” has a funky skipping tempo. Matthew Skoller contributes a crisp solo on harmonica, as the smooth baritone of Sims, Jr. tells the tale. Mack returns with his trademark slide guitar on “Get Right Church”. Evocative harmonies make this number soar. Ms. Simms has a natural versatile singing style. Her urgent vocals on “C-Line Woman” demonstrate a voice that can wail, invoking the spirit of past generations. Smith offers another percolating solo on drums. Each tune is connected to a Southern/New Orleans genesis. More religious themes are explored in the acoustic country blues track, “Chilly Jordan”.

The dynamics of Heritage Blues Orchestra elevates the music. There is no greater evidence of this than the stunning finale, “Hard Times”. Arranged like a three-part suite, the first “movement” is an exchange with voice (mostly Ms. Sims) and guitar. The middle section is a haunting textured horn symphony that brings to mind the groundbreaking work of Miles Davis. The final part is a rocking jam that raises the roof. Arranger Bruno Wilhelm is ferocious on the tenor saxophone, as a great album propels to a satisfying close.

And Still I Rise is a rousing debut. Produced by Grammy-nominated Larry Skoller, the music is uplifting and never lets up.

TrackList: Clarksdale Moan; C-Line Woman; Big Legged Woman; Catfish Blues; Go Down Hannah; Get Right Church; Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down; Going Uptown; In The Morning; Levee Camp Holler; Chilly Jordan; Hard Times

—Robbie Gerson

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