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CD REVIEW -- Shoji Naito
GLT blues radio

SHOJI NAITO

New Cool Old School

Ogden Records – ORCD 380 

Shoji Naito CD

By Eric Steiner

It’s awfully rare when I think of releases that may land on my “top 10 blues CD list” so early in the calendar year. Well, Shoji Naito’s New Cool Old School, released earlier this year on Ogden Records, is poised to be one of my favorite blues releases of 2016. Although it is Shoji’s name highlighted on the CD’s jacket, this is very much an ensemble effort with an all-star Chicago blues cast: Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Katherine Davis, Willie Buck, Milwaukee Slim, Erwin Helfer, Billy Flynn, Gerry Hundt, Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi, Rie “Lee” Kanehira, Harlon Terson, Marty Binder, Mark Fornek, and Grant Kessler.

 

Shoji’s independent label, Ogden Records, honors a street that begins in the center of Chicago and runs toward the southwest to Westmont, a suburban community that Muddy Waters called home late in life, FYI.

 

New Cool Old School features performers that play regularly around Chicago in venues like Shaw’s Crab House on Hubbard Street downtown, Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap on the South Side in Hyde Park,  B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted up on the North Side, or Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop. On this CD, Shoji leads a solid and well-known Chicago blues ensemble, while alternating between harp and guitar, and the 14 cuts include several Chicago blues classics as well as some inventive, original songs.

 

Shoji recruited a team of first-class Chicago blues musicians that play local clubs and festivals, such as guitarist Billy Flynn, drummer Marty Binder, blueswoman Katherine Davis, pianists Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi, Rie “Lee” Kanehira and Erwin Helfer, along with true old-school Chicago bluesmen Willie Buck and 2016 Blues Foundation Hall of Fame inductee, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. Cicero Adams joins Gerry Hundt and Harlan Tenson on bass and Mark Fornek alternates behind the drums with Binder.

 

My favorites include the ensemble’s take on an Alberta Hunter classic, “I Got Myself a Working Man,” with Helfer using a thoughtful and slow ragtime-styled approach on the piano as he perfectly sets up his longtime partner, veteran blues singer Katherine Davis, for her to sing the praises of her working man. The spicy instrumental, “Congo Mambo,” adds an island-inspired rhumba to the mix, highlighted by Shoji’s nimble, melodic guitar work interacting with Lee Kanehira’s sprightly piano stylings and the hip shakin’ rhythm section of Fornek on drums and Hundt on bass.

I particularly liked Shoji’s harp workout on a rollicking interpretation of “Sweet Home Chicago” alongside Milwaukee Slim’s “blues perfect” vocals. Willie Buck’s “Honey Bee” and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s “Big Boss Man” are finely executed examples of “new cool” interpretations of “old school” blues and I highly recommend Willie’s work on the Delmark label and Eddie’s work on Alligator.

During the recording sessions, Shoji wanted to mix things up: for a classic take on Jimmy Rogers’ “Money, Marbles and Chalk,” drummer Marty Binder picked up the guitar and guitarist Billy Flynn played drums, while photographer Grant Kessler traded his camera for a harp!  

Two years ago, Flynn joined Billy Boy Arnold, Mark Hummel and Corky Siegel on the Petrillo Band Shell at the Chicago Blues Festival to honor the memory of Sonny Boy Williamson – I didn’t know that Billy could hold his own on the Mississippi saxophone with those legends (and I certainly didn’t know that he could play the drums!). That’s one of the many surprises on New Cool Old School: a diverse set of original, contemporary and traditional blues, plus musicians who mix it up; it all makes for an entertaining experience, courtesy of Windy City bluesmen and blueswomen who are keeping the blues very much alive in nightclubs around Chicagoland. Shoji’s liner notes gets it right: “These are the kinds of blues that you can hear in Chicago every day.”

 

       This Spring, Shoji is supporting Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater in Chicagoland before joining the band at the Keeping the Blues Alive Award-winning Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. Shoji also will be joining Morry Sochat’s Special 20s at Buddy Guy’s Legends.

 

   Shoji Naito is living proof that the blues knows no barriers. He left his native Tokyo, Japan in 1996 for Chicago to pursue his musical dream, and in less than a year after landing at O’Hare, he began working with harp legend Joe Filisko at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he continues to work with Joe. After studying music at Columbia College, he joined Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater in 2004, and one year later, became a key player in Morry Sochat’s band. In 2014, Shoji and Morry represented the Windy City Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge. Shoji’s website is informative and entertaining – check out the live set at the Blues City Café in Memphis – there are links to upcoming gigs and other releases on his Ogden Records label, plus there’s a blog for his countrymen in Japanese.

 

     New Cool Old School is an exceptional blues record that reflects the creativity and diversity that is very much alive and well in Chicago-area clubs every night of the week. I highly recommend New School Old School for newcomers to Chicago blues as well as those blues veterans like me who experienced Muddy Waters live at what used to be Chicago’s biggest music festival, ChicagoFest, in 1981.

For more info or to buy the CD, visit:

www.shojinaito.com

 

Eric Steiner is the Editor of the Washington Blues Society Bluesletter and the immediate past president of the Washington Blues Society.  He served on the Blues Foundation Board of Directors from 2010 to 2013, and he is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Blues Guide.

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