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CD REVIEW -- Pinetop Perkins

PINETOP PERKINS

Heaven

Blind Pig

Pinetop Perkins Heaven CD

 

By Dawn O’Keefe Williams

Pinetop Perkins had just won his third Grammy, for his duet CD with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith titled Joined At The Hip, when he passed away on March 21, 2011 at age 97.  On Heaven, Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, a master of the piano, made these never-before-released studio recordings in 1986 at the tender age of 73. Although he is no doubt entertaining the angels in the great beyond, Pinetop has left us mortals with a little bit of heaven to enjoy on earth, thanks to this marvelous CD and Blind Pig Records.

 

            While listening to this delightful disc, two things immediately come to mind.  First is Pinetop’s incredible performance on the piano and the second is the sound quality, which is clean and clear without being overbearing.   Pinetop’s signature sound is distinct and concise with a touch of sustain.  As soon as you hear him play, you recognize that this is none other than Pinetop Perkins performing.   He is consistently solid and steady. He never misses any notes and has a strong downbeat.

 

It has been said that the piano is the poor man’s orchestra.  Pinetop always played like he was the orchestra.  Completely.   He performs solo on all but four tracks. When you listen to him playing you don’t even realize there aren’t any other instruments.  You become involved right from the start with the groove that he lays down. Pinetop’s style is full-bodied as he uses every key, from working the bass lines while playing a multitude of melodies (seemingly all at once), thereby providing incredible music that is full and vibrant.  Sometimes the music is a slow blues, or a gut bucket or a boogie woogie.  You can even hear a polished Pinetop as he plays behind soul legend Otis Clay singing “Since I Fell For You”.  You don’t even miss other instruments, none are necessary. Take for instance the second song, a slow blues written by Pinetop,”4 O’Clock In The Morning”; it’s just him singing and playing the piano.  He has plenty of trills and chords playing a beautiful melody and accents, while the bass line is constant.   He appears to be playing fills and leads all together and yet tastefully. 

 

Heaven is focused entirely on Perkins’ performance but the vocals are not cut short either.  The standard “Sitting On Top of The World” features the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith singing.  His voice is warm, with that slight touch of vibrato, and has as much presence as Pinetop’s. Willie also passed away last year, at age 75. This is believed to be his last recording, as his vocals and Clay’s were added to the tracks in more recent times.

 

            All the vocals in this CD are mixed upfront to display each singer’s enhancement to the songs. Pinetop’s singing brings variety as well.  Sometimes his voice is raspy and rough as in the first cut, “44 Blues”, and then he’s smooth and mellow in his original “Ida B”.   And smooth he was, both on and off stage, as he was known for being a ladies’ man who always dressed meticulously in great style with suits that had matching hats and shoes, even at age 97.

 

            There are only four numbers that have a backup band, such as on “Just Keep On Drinking,” an up-tempo song written by Perkins and Chicago blues harp player Lincoln Beauchamp, Jr. 

 

One of the treats on this CD is that Pinetop’s piano intros are always beautiful and performed in a different style on each song.  His musical phrasing is impeccable, from humorous and playful, to a down and dirty grind and a moody slow blues.  Yet somehow the music never truly seems sad because his performance is overwhelmingly wonderful to listen to as he plays so many different types of melodic styles and chords at one time.  His ability to play almost the entire keyboard at once is uncanny.   He displays numerous styles of performing from accents, like glissandos using the entire keyboard, to rolled chords that he does so well in most of his songs, as well as trills and walking bass lines.  His chords thunder at times or they become gentle and quiet, only to come back up with renewed zest.  The dynamics and skill in each song are impressive from this self-taught pianist. 

 

For example the sixth track, ”Since I Fell For You” sung by Otis Clay,  is a ballad but the way that Pinetop plays the chords, he provides a unique counterpoint that actually gives it a mid-tempo feel.

 

“Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” is a fun song that starts with a dramatic intro and then goes into a groove that would get any club goer up and dancing.  He talks to the audience like he’s playing a game with them.   Another gem that stands out is Pinetop’s version of “Willow Weep for Me”; his humorous, lighthearted piano interpretation belies any willow weeping.   It has an old time feeling to it as if Charlie Chaplin was about to come walking down the lane.  The dynamics are delightful.

 

Each time you listen to Heaven you will hear more things going on, such as different chord structures or bass lines -- or maybe a rolled chord or a trill that wasn’t noticed before.   This CD is truly a work of art to be savored and explored.  Thank you Blind Pig for giving us a taste of Heaven also known as Pinetop Perkins. 

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