Billy Branch Credit: Courtesy the Artist

Blues tributes are too often dire affairs—note-for-note reworkings of timeworn ideas and riffs that betray an almost puritanical obsession with “authenticity.” That approach, of course, dishonors the spirit of the music it purports to celebrate—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James, all of whom attract frequent tributes, weren’t purists or revivalists but instead radically reimagined blues tradition and took it to places it had never been before. Harpist Billy Branch, who learned his craft from some of Chicago’s most legendary postwar bluesmen, honors his mentors in exactly this way: having mastered their tonal attacks and improvisational ideas, he uses them as springboards for his own fresh imaginings. Often he reworks the tunes into virtually new creations, with the revolutionary spirit of the originals infused into every note bend, squall, and upward-arcing improvisational flourish. That’s the approach Branch takes on his latest CD, Roots and Branches: The Songs of Little Walter (Alligator). Little Walter Jacobs is universally acknowledged as the premier harmonica genius of the postwar era, and Branch revisits some of his best-known songs as well as a few relative obscurities. He re-creates Walter’s tone with almost eerie verisimilitude while updating his themes with rhythmically aggressive, harmonically exploratory brio, pushed further by the rock-tinged eclecticism of his band, the Sons of Blues. In other words, Branch plays as if history itself were his instrument, and rather than use it as a crutch, he makes it a tool—a way to extract new riches from venerable lodes.   v