City Country City
(Gulf Coast Records)
4 out of 5 stars
No one spent much time designing cover art, let alone sweating out a snappy name for this new collaboration of blues harmonica ace Jason Ricci and New Orleans keyboard legend Joe Krown.
Some may already know Krown as a backing member of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s group or bandleader behind the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Others might remember Jason Ricci’s frantic harp skills from albums with his New Blood and Bad Kind outfits. But unless you are closely watching music emerging from the Crescent City, it’s unlikely these two have much name recognition.
Maybe that will change. They have now combined talents, and added New Orleans drummer Doug Belote, for this debut. This is also one of the first releases on blues-rock guitarist Mike Zito’s Gulf Coast imprint (Zito contributes liner notes). It finds the trio revved up and cooking with music, like that of their adopted hometown, combining blues, soul, jazz, and funk on a dozen tracks; half rearranged covers, the rest originals.
Anyone yet to experience Ricci’s electrifying harmonica skills will be floored. He never showboats for the sake of it (his subtle work on Charles Brown’s slow “Driftin’ Blues” is a prime example of how he dials it down when appropriate), but can suddenly ignite into a lip shredding explosion reminiscent of Paul Butterfield’s outstanding playing. Only faster. When he fully lets go as on Joe Sample’s Crusaders’ tune “My Mama Told Me So,” you may think the tape was mistakenly sped up in the recording process.
Krown has always been a classy player, heavily influenced by Jimmy Smith (especially on this disc’s version of Taj Mahal’s “The Jimmy Smith Strut”) and Jack McDuff, but bringing a personalized style and talent. Between Krown’s stunning organ work and Ricci’s explosive harp, this 65-minute program flies by so quickly it feels half as long.
Opening with a smoldering take on War’s title track is a masterstroke since harmonica and organ were such major ingredients in that band’s signature sound. It sets the tone for the rest of the selections that alternate between instrumentals like— Ricci’s gospel-infused ballad “It Starts With Me”—and vocals on tunes such as “Down at the Juke”’s Texas shuffle. Singing is new for the harpist who in the past didn’t do much of it. While his voice won’t win any awards for subtlety or expressiveness, he projects enough soul to keep the listener engaged until the next solo comes along.
Perhaps they could have found a different song to replicate than an instrumental run-through of Bobbie Gentry’s chestnut “Ode to Billy Joe,” which Krown has previously released and has been recorded by dozens of others. But the superb performance will make you forget how often this standard has been revived.
Both Jason Ricci and Joe Krown are already busy musicians with their own schedules and careers. Hopefully, this powerful and potent pairing will be the beginning of an extended musical relationship…if they can find the time for it.
Photo by Marilyn Stringer