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CD REVIEW -- Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues

BILLY BRANCH & THE SONS OF BLUES

Roots And Branches – The Songs of Little Walter

Alligator Records

ALCD 4992

Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues, Roots & Branches CD art

By Pierre Lacocque

1. Nobody But You, 3:07; 2. Mellow Down Easy, 4:31;

3. Roller Coaster, 3:15; 4. Blue And Lonesome, 4:11;

5. Hate To See You Go, 4:57; 6. My Babe, 4:54;

7. Juke, 3:19; 8. Last Night, 5:03; 9. Just Your Fool/Key To The Highway, 3:23;

10. Boom Boom Out Go The Light, 3:38; 11. It’s Too Late Brother; 3:15; 12. One More Chance With You, 4:00;

13.You’re So Fine, 3:32; 14. Blues With A Feeling; 4:26; 15. Remembering Little Walter By Marion Diaz (Little Walter’s Daughter); 2:43

Total Time: 59:00

******

Producers:  Billy Branch, Sumito Ariyoshi and Rosa Enrico Branch

Arrangements: Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Blaise Barton at Joyride Studios, Chicago, IL

Packing Design: Kevin Niemec

Photography: Roman Sobus  & Janet Mami Takayama

Little Walter Illustration:  Oscar Ivan Pintor

MUSICIANS

Billy Branch – Harmonica and Vocals

Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi – Piano 

Giles Corey – Guitar (except on track 12, “One More Chance With You”, where Shoji Naito appears)

Marvin Little - Bass

Andrew “Blaze” Thomas - Drums

REVIEW

One could argue that recording a harmonica tribute to Little Walter has many risks, the most striking one being that no player will ever come close to Little Walter’s genius, considered as the best Chicago Blues harmonica player of all times. Harp players who paid loving homages to the Master are numerous. Over the decades since Little Walter’s untimely death in 1968, they have done well, and at times even glowingly so.  Among them are George “Harmonica” Smith, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Cohen, Jim Liban, Aki Kumar, Steve Guyger, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Rick Estrin.

Dennis Gruenling’s inspiring 2008 compilation “I Just Keep Lovin’ Him: A Tribute to Little Walter,” on Back Bender Records (BBR708) highlights stellar harmonica players honoring the Master. When it comes to the best Little Walter harmonica tributes to date, Gruenling’s recording and those released by Montreal-based harp maestro Bharath Rajakumar’s are among the most seminal ones. Roots and Branches will now belong to this groundbreaking category.

Some of the Little Walter songs selected here are rearranged. “My Babe” (with 2 different tempos), “Juke,” “Just Your Fool,” “Mellow Down Easy” and “Nobody But You” are given new musical interpretations. These are funkier and jazzier than the original ones -- all to a pleasant surprise.

BILLY BRANCH’S PERFORMANCE

Billy’s playing here is brilliant. While his amplified harp tone often matches Little Walter’s phrasings note-for-note, he remains his own man. Indeed, Branch effortlessly weaves in and out of Little Walter’s repertoire. Check out (arguably) the most difficult of all of Little Walter songs: “Roller Coaster.” It was originally recorded in April of 1955 - a month before Little Walter’s 25th birthday - at the peak of the Master’s creative years. This song has so many nuances that it is nearly impossible to render it justice. Yet, Billy tackles it extremely well.  

This applies to the entire recording. On all of the 14 tracks he delivers loads of spur-of-the-moment creative gems. There is an undeniable ease and spontaneity to his playing. His is a fresh and masterful performance.

SUPPORT CAST

Blaise Barton’s engineering and overall mix of Roots and Branches is superb. He presents Billy’s harmonica in a wide and vibrant panoramic sound. Billy’s harmonica jumps out equally from the left, middle and the right speakers in stereophonic style. Barton mixed Branch’s performance in a close-and-personal style.

The tight rhythm section of Andrew “Blaze” Thomas and Marvin Little is a joy to listen to. They are a delightful team and deserve to be lauded.

Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano – with Billy Branch close to 20 years now, and co-producer with Billy and his wife Rosa -- shines throughout. His piano playing flows effortlessly (and quite gently), weaving in and out of Billy’s harp playing and singing. He also delivers wonderful solos on this outing.

          On the guitar duties, Giles Corey’s playing here is nothing short of stunning. I have long been of fan of his, and he has been a core member of Mississippi Heat’s recording - and sometimes traveling - history ever since 2006. Giles has played with Billy Branch for even longer, and like the rest of the band, he plays the 14 Little Walter songs like it is second nature to him. Check out Corey’s amazing rendition of “Hate To See You Go,” for example. He also delivers heartfelt solos. He makes a powerful contribution throughout. He once shared with me that “Billy is like a father to me.” That’s how much respect and closeness Giles feels towards the Chicago Blues Harmonica Master. As with the piano and rhythm section, I could zero-in on Giles Corey’s support and lead guitar playing only, and still appreciate this remarkable CD.  

Billy Branch has an awesome band. One of the best around. Perhaps his best band in years.

Of note on this recording, is track #14: “Remembering Little Walter” by Marion Diaz, Little Walter’s daughter. This touching and personal recollection of Ms. Diaz’s childhood presents a proud daughter, who with her mother, grandmother, aunt and sister, were called by the Master “My “Five Queens.” This nearly 3-minute interview is filled with tender anecdotes. Recently, Blaise Barton at Joyride Studio - where Branch’s CD was recorded - told me that this recorded interview is about an hour long. Bruce Iglauer tells me that its recording is owned by Billy Branch and co-producers Rosa Enrico Branch (Billy’s wife) and Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi. Bruce said that he had not been not aware of the interview’s length. 

CONCLUSION

Roots & Branches is a thrilling CD. I have listened to it many times and I don’t get tired of it. This says a lot coming from a harmonica player, like me, who is intimately familiar with every single note Little Walter has ever recorded.

This album is a welcomed addition to Little Walter tributes. Billy’s harp playing is at his best: fresh, fluid, and uniquely creative while keeping the Little Walter spirit alive and well. He sings with conviction and passion.

Roots & Branches deserves the best of accolades, such as a Grammy and multiple Blues Music Awards. And beyond.

 ***** Five Stars

About the Author: Pierre Lacocque is the band leader/harmonica player/songwriter for Delmark Records’ artists Mississippi Heat. He was inducted in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.

For info: www.mississippiheat.net

To buy the CD: www.alligator.com

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