Blues Masters – Various Artists – AudioQuest Music /MasterMusic (2014) xrcd24 NT015, 53:10 (Distr. by Combak) ****1/2:

(Featuring Mighty Sam McClain; Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters; Doug Macleod; Robert Lucas; Terry Evans; Lloyd Jones; and Joe Beard)

AudioQuest Music established a 25-year track record as a progressive jazz and blues label and then was sold and now is called Sledgehammer Blues. This latest release from them is a project with the new owners, Valley Entertainment (who also have Windham Hill and Hearts of Space), and audiophile pioneer MasterMusic. MasterMusic is noted for their 24-bit mastering process using JVC’s technology. [But these play on any CD player without a special decoder. They are around $30 to $40 on Amazon.  While not really hi-res, they sound so good I feel they qualify for inclusion in this section…Ed.]

Under the direction of Tohru Kotetsu, they have brought this technology to recordings of blues music, recorded in the early and mid-nineties. Blues Masters is a bona fide collection of modern blues classics. The opening track is a slow-burning Sam McClain/Kevin Barry original composition “I’m So Lonely”. McClain’s soulful, tormented vocals define the essence of loneliness. Barry’s nasty guitar licks seem to pay homage to greats like B.B. King. The arrangement has a rich texture with keyboards and a horn chorus. But it is straightforward in its intuitive angst. A second McClain number “Too Proud” is equally potent in exploring the bitterness of love. Bruce Katz delivers a resonating performance on Hammond B-3. There are a variety of blues styles found on this collection. Doug Macleod resurrects down and dirty acoustic blues on Willie Dixon’s “Bring It On Home”. Macleod’s finger-snapping vibe on guitar and vocals is countered by the incomparable Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. There are other compositions from legendary composers. Terry Evans is transformative on J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi”. His powerful vocal baritone underscores the haunting anguish of Lenoir. The instrumentation is also evocative, boasting a veritable all-star band, including Ry Cooder (slide guitar), Jim Keltner (drums) and Hence Powell (piano).

One notable change of pace is Lloyd Jones’ ebullient performance on “Can’t Get You Off My Mind”. Drawing on the crisp rhythm and blues structure, the infectious grooves are accented with tight “James Brown” horns and a big finish. However, most of the collection approximates traditional representation. Robert Lucas contributes two numbers: On Muddy Waters’ classic “Feel Like Going Home”, Lucas solos on slide guitar and inhabits the song’s vampy melody line. “Moonshine 2” is pure Delta, with punctuated harmonica and anecdotal vocals. There is considerable grace in blues music. Ronnie Earl And The Broadcasters appear on two different tracks. “Kansas City Monarch” (an instrumental) evokes a hushed elegance infused with a dirge-like ambiance by trumpet (Larry Etkin) and tenor saxophone (Anders Gaardmand who has a great solo). Earl and Katz (piano) deliver prominent solos. This “down-tempo” jam is authentic blues.  Joe Beard joins the group on “Feets Out In The Hallway”. In laid-back dual-pronged guitar leads (Beard and Earl), the succinct distillation of blues is expressed.

Blues Masters is luminous on this xrcd disc. The guitars are crisp and smooth without a lot of electrical distortion. The Hammond B-3 tonality is captured with warmth and range. Quiet moments have precision, but still possess complexity and strength. When the multi-instrumental dynamics kick in, the aural potency is superb. Modern technology is a perfect complement to this traditional music.

TrackList: I’m So Lonely; Kansas City Monarch; Too Proud; Bring It On Home; Feel Like Going Home; Down In Mississippi; Can’t Get You Off My Mind; Moonshine 2; Feets Out In The Hallway

–Robbie Gerson