Big Harp George rounds up some of the talented West Coast friends from his previous two albums for his new and ultra-cool release Uptown Cool on the Blue Mountain Records label. Big Harp George made his front man musical debut in 2014 with Chromaticism, followed in 2016 by Wash My Horse In Champagne. Big Harp George (Bisharat) presents twelve brand spanking new compositions that showcase his clever lyrical wit and age-earned wisdom, his enjoyable vocals, and his mastery of the chromatic harmonica; a larger and more complicated harmonica than the much more common diatonic models.
Continuing the pattern established on his previous two
releases the guitar cunning is equally split between Kid Andersen and Little
Charlie Baty. Both of these modern six string wizards exploit their
musicianship with each of them strutting their stuff on six separate songs. Andersen
plays bass guitar on the tunes where Baty plays guitar. The bass guitar duties
are handled on the six songs where Andersen plays guitar. Keyboardist Chris
Burns is also back in the fold making his valuable presence felt on every track,
as well as receiving production credit. Drummer Alex Pettersen (like Kid
Andersen a native of Norway and a member of Rick Estin and the Nightcats) is
also on all the songs. Uptown Cool was
recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose, CA, and engineered
“Greaseland is becoming really popular, probably bordering on legendary in our little sub genre. Kid Andersen is the best engineer I’ve ever worked with.” ~ Rick Estin
George hits the ground runningwith “Down to the Rite Aid,” a song with a very catchy swingin’ melody
and a potent blend of horns and harmonica. The lyrics concern the reliance on
health medications and support aids (canes, joint braces, etc.) that unfortunately
become necessities for the majority of aging folks. The song has a joyous feel,
even though the lyrics involve some not so joyful topics such as the darkly serious
possible side effects on almost all prescription drugs. There is a call and response
treatment between George’s harp and Baty’s guitar in collaboration with a
steady rollin’ boogie-woogie piano that all come together very nicely.
The perils of internet dating are lampooned on the
lyrics for “Internet Honey.” A growling yakity-yak tenor saxophone of Michael
Peloquin adds a real nice touch and is precisely paired with the slide trombone
of Mike Rinta. The rhythm is propelled along with an old-school skating rink
organ courtesy of Chris Burns. Kid Andersen contributes the occasional piercing
lead guitar riff, and George’s harp and vocals neatly fill in any empty spaces.
The rhythm section of Pettersen on drums and Joe Kyle on bass guitar shoulder
their fair share of the load.
“Alternative Facts” is a song of particular relevance in these current times of fake news fueled by the en masse sharing of misinformation on social media. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics show some examples of how far-fetched some of the fabrications posing as truths can reach. George uses a semi-spoken vocal to get his message across. The horn arrangement by Peloquin, who also did the arrangement on “Internet Honey,” suits the song without blemish. Kid Andersen shows his fretboard agility and the background vocalist sings the refrain “fake news” and is answered each time by Big Harp correcting with “alternative facts.” BHG’s harmonica play is simply sublime.
“Uptown Cool is the fullest realization of my musical vision to date. Each song bears the mark of great musicians who contributed their creativity unstintingly to this project.” ~ Big Harp George
A Latin-tinged tune called “I Wanna Know” features
some Spanish style guitar by Baty and a good back-ground vocal by Loralee
Christensen. Big Harp sings and plays his instrument like the pro he is. D’Mare
implements some ever so pertinent percussion in concert with Pettersen’s drum work
while Andersen supplies distinctive syncopated rhythmic character on bass.
“Nobody’s Listening” is a gentle jog into laid back
late night jazz-blues territory. Big Harp’s harmonica playing is most
impressing; both for his control and the limpid tone his instrument achieves.
This tone reminds me of Texan Mickey Raphael when he at times strays further
into jazzy terrain. Baty’s guitar and Burn’s piano effectively complement Big
Harp’s warm vocal and add to the ambiance.
“Paul DeLay was incredibly creative and did things on chromatic no blues player had done before. His playing inspired me to focus on the chromatic harmonica.” ~ Big Harp George
In addition to the late Paul DeLay, Big Harp George
was, early in life, captivated by Paul Butterfield and began playing diatonic
harmonica at age twelve. He now lists his four largest influences on harmonica
to be Paul Delay, William Clarke, George “Harmonica” Smith and Big Walter
Horton. Little George “Harmonica” Smith was the player who first introduced the
concept of playing octaves on the chromatic harmonica. George “Harmonica” Smith settled in L.A. in
1955 and made an indelible impact as he helped mold the styles of numerous younger
West Coast players such as William Clarke, Kim Wilson, James Harman, and most
significantly Rod Piazza. Smith and Piazza played in the band Bacon Fat for
several years displaying excellent chromatic harmonica expertise.
“William Clarke was a very jazzy player; at least on the chromatic. I loved his jazzy approach, he was a swinging player, and so, I extended that jazzy tradition in my music as well.” ~ Big Harp George
Two instrumentals grace the contents of Uptown Cool. The first one is entitled“In the First Place” and is a jazzy boogie with the harmonica chugging along with the intensity of a choo-choo train rumbling down the tracks. The second instrumental is the title track “Uptown Cool.” This one contains some chilled guitar by Baty who then supplies a semi-reggae feel on his mid-song solo that showcases Baty’s fretboard fluency to full effect. That solo is shortly followed by a harmonica solo by Big Harp that firmly takes center stage. The third solo of the song is provided by Chris Burns on a Hammond B-3 organ. Both of these instrumentals are good variations from the remainder of the album’s selections.
The classic slow Chicago Blues comes via the song “Cold
Snap by the Bay’ and is probably my favorite song on the album. BHG is in fine
bluesy vocal form and his harmonica solo is as blue as the sky in Montana while
the sad atmosphere creeps into the song like a stalking lioness. The subject
matter of the lyrics concerns three men freezing to death down in San Jose. BHG
exclaims “play one Chris” just before Chris Burns take a majestic tinkling
A small taste of Spanish lyrics adds to the Latin
feel of “Just Calm Yourself.” Loralee
Christensen glows in her role as vocal foil to Big Harp George on this one, and
Kid Andersen is nimble as a goat on lead guitar.
For an additional display of variety, Big Harp
George and his crew take a cultural trip down New Orleans way with “Lord Make
Me Chaste.” The horn section of Michael
Peloquin on saxophones and Mike Rinta on trombone and tuba fuel the engine as a
smooth BHG vocal is assisted by a scat vocal by Derick Hughes.
Big Harp George plays his chromatic harmonica with a dynamite combination of rhythm, pitch, intonation and style. He remains a mighty fine songwriter displaying a keen intellect. The guitar array of Kid Andersen and Little Charlie Baty always are a source of confident sophistication and provide appropriate accompaniment throughout. George’s website header proclaims him to be a practitioner of 21st Century Artisanal Blues.
On Uptown Cool Big Harp George and band presents a signature stew of infectious songs, ironic lyrics, and impeccably played instruments making this one a tour de force for aficionados of chromatic harmonica.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com