Music Review: James Cotton â€“ Giant
Music Review: James Cotton â€“ Giant
September 20, 2010
By JOHN TAYLOR
In mortal hands, the diatonic harmonica is a limited instrument. In the hands of a true giant like James Cotton though, its possibilities seem virtually limitless.
Even casual blues fans shouldnâ€™t need an introduction to Cotton, one of the last of the original innovators. Along with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Cotton helped to define the harmonicaâ€™s place in modern blues. And heâ€™s remained one of the instrumentâ€™s most distinct and identifiable stylists, with a high energy attack and a sound all his own.
Heâ€™s getting on in years, of course (as he was born in 1935), and his voiceâ€“always a bit hoarse, even in his younger daysâ€“is long gone. But he knows how to assemble and lead a top-notch touring outfit. Here heâ€™s working exclusively with his own road-tested band, with the results being a tough, hard-hitting collection that sounds surprisingly fresh and vital.
The blues is often referred to as timeless, and Cottonâ€™s choice of material is just that. Former employer Muddy Waters is the most prominent composer, with three tunes (â€œFind Yourself Another Fool,â€ â€œSad Sad Day,â€ and â€œGoing Down Main Streetâ€). Also included is Jimmy Rodgersâ€™ classic â€œThatâ€™s Alright,â€ and immortal standards â€œHow Blue Can You Get?â€ and Ivory Joe Hunterâ€™s â€œSince I Met You, Baby.â€ Theyâ€™re all old tunes that have been covered many times, but the themes are still relevantâ€“the blues are still with us, still part of the human emotional spectrum-and Cotton and friends tear through â€˜em as though they were written in the studio that day.
Cotton contributes four of his own, two with help from guitarist Slam Allen. One assumes Allenâ€™s responsible for the lyrics on â€œHeard Youâ€™re Getting Marriedâ€ and the deeply funky â€œChange,â€ as Cottonâ€™s solo credits are both for instrumentals. â€œWith The Quicknessâ€ is a short, furious blast of harmonica heaven reminiscent of Cottonâ€™s signature tune, â€œThe Creeper Creeps Again,â€ showing Cottonâ€™s still got chops to spare. And â€œBlues For Koko,â€ a tribute to the late â€˜Queen Of The Bluesâ€™ that closes the disc, is a straight-ahead 12-bar grinder with some truly astonishing work on the lickinâ€™ stick.
Cottonâ€™s always favored a healthy dose of funk in his blues, and his rhythm section (bassist Noel and drummer Kenny Neal Jr., both members of an extended and esteemed musical clan), is an astonishingly supple yet muscular machine. (Check out the slippery bass that underpins â€œHow Blue Can You Get?â€). Guitarists Allen and Tom Holland are an ideal tag team, trading leads and rhythm with instinctive ease. Allen handles most of the vocals, with Holland stepping up on â€œSad Sad Day.â€ Theyâ€™re both sturdy and workmanlike, though Allen definitely deserves the lionâ€™s share; there are a few shining moments when he sounds a bit like B.B. King (and thatâ€™s a very good thing!).
Although he remains a giant on the harmonica, Giant isnâ€™t overly harp-centric, as the sound here is that of a working band, with Cottonâ€™s harp integral to the arrangements, yet never overpowering the song itself. His work has always been about tricky filigrees and sharp blasts that accent a tune. Itâ€™s the sheer expressiveness of his harmonica that matters, the subtle runs and quicksilver fills that embellish the song. And both his tone and approach remain utterly distinctive.
A giant indeed, Cotton is that rarest of harmonica players, an artist with an instantly identifiable sound, tempered with the musical wisdom of a lifetimeâ€™s immersion in the blues.
Given his age, stature, and health, it would be understandable if Cotton were to rest a bit, to take a reflective approach in keeping with his years of experience. Instead, Giant delivers the blues in all its sweaty, dangerous gloryâ€“blues for all the right reasons, vital, urgent and bursting with life and feel, the most important element of allâ€“which takes priority over technical but sterile perfection. He may have seen and done it all by now, but Cottonâ€™s still making music from the heart, aimed straight at the soul.
Very highly recommended!