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CD REVIEW -- Big James & the Chicago Playboys

Big James & The Chicago Playboys

Right Here Right Now

Blind Pig Records

Big James CD art

By Linda Cain

Chicago has always been a horn town.  From classical, big band, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, soul, rock and pop, Chicago’s rich musical history can boast world-class horn sections and soloists in each of those genres. Two of our most famous musical exports, Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire, feature killer horn sections.  Any subsequent Chicago horn band that comes along has very high standards to measure up to. Big James & the Chicago Playboys have risen to the challenge with class and a dynamic, versatile style of their own.

From gritty blues to smooth soul, to funky, danceable grooves and high-powered R&B, trombonist/bandleader James Montgomery and his and his versatile, tight, six-piece band can handle any horn driven style with ease. This is no surprise given their musical backgrounds.  Big James played in bands behind Albert King, Little Milton and Johnny Christian.  The rest of the Playboys, Charlie Kimble (sax), Kenny Anderson (trumpet), Joe Blocker (keyboards), Mike Wheeler (guitar, vocals), Larry Williams (bass) and Cleo Cole (drums) have each worked with a who’s who of blues, soul and gospel artists both live and in the studio. Read the liner notes of any blues CD recorded in Chicago and you will likely see at least one of these names.

It was Johnny Christian who encouraged them to stay together and form their own band. Upon his death in 1993, the Playboys did just that.  The band went on to back up Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, touring the world and performing in very high profile venues. Collectively, the band recorded four CDs on the Jamot label between1998 and 2007, on which Big James emerged as the primary songwriter. A number of awards (Living Blues Magazine, Prix Blues in Paris) and nominations from the Blues Foundation in Memphis followed.

Right Here Right Now marks The Playboys' debut on major blues label Blind Pig Records, which will hopefully bring them much-deserved wider recognition.  There is a lot more to this groovin’ band than just impeccable horn arrangements and precision playing.  James contributes eight originals and the band stamps its identity on the three well-chosen cover songs.

The title track has lyrics that Big James could have ripped from Chicago’s newspaper headlines. His socially conscious message pleads with us to be concerned and take a stand against violence and other problems that plague our world. The Playboys’ horns serve as the Greek chorus, lifting the listener up to joyous musical heights, as James beckons us to rise above the madness.

 “On The Grind” displays a similar message with James’ advice for these trying times. “These blues is all I got,” he declares as he urges us to stay on the straight and narrow, noses to the grindstone, avoiding the vices of the street. The original tune features a well-placed rap by James’ nephew, Derrick “D-Mose” Moseberry.

James is a serious-minded artist, expressing his concerns and worries in verse, while his musical buddies power the message home with emotionally expressive and often danceable music.  On the slow, sad blues of “Expect The Best” James tells us to remain positive but to be prepared for the worst. “Worry” is a magnificent horn driven, Albert Collins style blues tune in which James recites a litany of things he worries about. It’s only the solace of blues that don’t cause him to fret.

Another serious subject that James addresses is love.  This horn-y dude reveals his quest for love on two “beggin’” songs. On “A Little Attention” he only wants a teeny weeny bit of your love, and he’ll even play a fabulous tromobone solo for you!  James is down on his knees, sincerely pleading on “Help (Somebody Please)” on this passionate cover of an O’Jays song.  Unconditional love is the subject of “A Mama Like Mine,” in which James sings the praises of his dear mother. You’ve got to love a Playboy who loves him mom and writes a song for her.

As a vocalist, James is a top-notch soul man. “Love To See You Smile” is bouncy Southern soul, a Bobby “Blue” Bland cover, on which Big James’ big voice soars with elation over his lady’s sunny disposition.  The Tyrone Davis cover, “Without You In My Life,” features punchy Memphis Horns style arrangements accenting James’ deep, powerful vocals that are closer to Otis Redding’s than Davis’ smooth style.

The band takes a walk down funk street with its cover of George Clinton’s “The Goose.” With its goofy lyrics, such as “I’m as happy as a monkey with a peanut machine,” and booty shakin’ grooves, this is a fun departure from James’ soul-searching original numbers.

“I Love ‘Em” starts out with a tasty Buddy Guy style guitar solo by Mike Wheeler and is highlighted by James’ very rhythmic staccato style vocals. “I love these blues. Can’t live without ‘em, y’all!” he declares. The horn section kicks in and James plays a rousing ‘bone solo. This dynamite number must be a real show stopper live!

If James hadn’t become a Playboy, he surely could have been a preacher. In fact, the back cover photo depicts James with his hands in prayer position, deep in thought, with his bling-y Playboy bunny necklace sparkling in the darkness that surrounds him.  It is this saints vs. sinners dichotomy that seems to drive the band leader’s artistic muse.

Even if you don’t listen to James’ heartfelt lyrics, the mighty band and the soulful music will captivate you. Big James & The Chicago Playboys exemplify the best of the Windy City’s contemporary blues and soul artists on the scene today -- right here, right now.

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 Copyright 2009: Chicago Blues Guide

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