Hubert Sumlin

Blind Pig Records BP 3389

The best blues and jazz soloists are both earnest about their craft and deeply committed to having a good time. The histories of these two interrelated forms are peppered with a colorful cast of flamboyant free spirits whose art and life-styles refused to remain within conventional boundaries. These artists melded painstakingly crafted musical vision with a playful, life-affirming exuberance in a way that’s become essential to blues and jazz expression.

Like many eccentrics, our musical free spirits sometimes create in furious bursts. This can pose problems in the recording studio. In a live performance pulsing with the moment’s heat, even occasional flashes of brilliance may be enough to carry the evening. Recorded music, though, stands alone–in a vacuum, as it were–and we tend to get impatient when the performer spends too much time noodling around, thinking about what to say next.

Hubert Sumlin personifies this sort of unbounded creative genius. He’s best known as the guitarist who helped forge the searing intensity of Howlin’ Wolf’s sound on such Wolf classics as “Evil,” “Forty-Four,” “Killing Floor,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Spoonful,” and others; he remained with Wolf, off and on, from the early 50s until Wolf’s death in 1976. His solos sometimes seem to descend upon his fingertips from outer space, following no known pattern of blues logic, yet at their best they’re some of the most memorable in all of blues. His tone alternately shimmers and stings; there’s a sharpness to even his most supple improvisations that makes one think of the rippling metallic fluidity of mercury.

Sumlin is mercurial in other ways as well. He’s a kindly man with a warm smile, but his affect often seems somehow off-center, his eyes distracted. That mixture of sincerity and confusion is reflected in his music; within a single solo, Sumlin is capable of veering wildly from inspiration to near-chaos several times. Keeping him on track throughout an entire recording session must be a daunting prospect.

It’s been tried. Sumlin has made several recordings for European labels–most notably the French Black and Blue label in the 1970s–and in the late 80s he recorded in the U.S. for Black Top. There’ve been moments of sheer brilliance every time he’s been in the studio, but his admirers have been waiting for the day he’d spread this brilliance across an entire recording. His latest, Heart & Soul, pairs him with harpist and longtime friend James Cotton and also features Little Mike and the Tornadoes as the backup band and rhythm section. Despite the stellar lineup, however, Sumlin’s elusive genius has once again managed to avoid capture.

Things start off promisingly. Sumlin establishes his unique musical personality immediately with the harmonic oddities of his boogie-woogie introduction to “Your Foxy Self”–but the real surprise here is harpist Cotton. His playing has become predictable lately, but on this one he’s inspired, scampering around lithe and lively behind Sumlin’s leads and employing more harmonic and tonal variation than he’s shown for years. Sumlin’s solo remains pretty much within the harmonic confines of a single octave, his trademark “boink-boink-boink” tonal attack enhancing what might otherwise have been a boring effort. The lyrics further reflect the artist’s personality; they’re as quirky and off-the-cuff as his solo.

Such inspiring moments, however, are scattered too lightly throughout this LP. “Chunky,” based on Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp,” starts off fine in a finger-popping funk-blues mold, but only Cotton seems to know what to do with the rhythm. He’s spent enough years fronting funk-boogie-blues bands to have learned how to lay his down-home harp style over that beat with satisfying results. But despite Sumlin’s improvisational audacity, he’s a pure traditionalist and seems uncomfortable outside the confines of straight four-four time.

There are also problems with sloppiness. The Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting on Top of the World,” dating back to at least the early 1930s, was a hit for Howlin’ Wolf in 1957 (he’s erroneously given writer credit on this LP). Sumlin must have played it hundreds of times, but here he seems confused by its unconventional chord structure; he muffs the changes on several occasions. Moreover, his voice isn’t supple enough to moan a slow-moving ballad like this, and he can’t summon the ferocity to turn the plaintive song into a growl of cynical resignation, as Wolf did.

The patient listener, however, will be rewarded. “I Want You” returns Sumlin to where he feels most at home–a straight-ahead, 50s-style Chicago boogie. Rhythm guitarist Tony O provides a gently propulsive backing, and once again the lyrics seem to stream, Joycean, from Sumlin’s mind. Sumlin finally cuts loose toward the end with one of his serpentine solos, all writhing flashes of stuttering brilliance and sporadic, light-bulb-popping intensity. It’s a classic Sumlin creation: it flirts with chaos but somehow fits perfectly into the very melody and rhythm it threatens to abandon.

The good groove continues with “Bring Your Love to Me.” It kicks off with a slashing guitar intro that reminds us where Keith Richards learned a lot of his stuff; the primal rock ‘n’ roll feel is maintained by Little Mike’s riffing organ, but Sumlin’s vocal phrasing and Cotton’s harp accompaniment are pure blues. Cotton sounds strong (this is the kind of boogie-shuffle that’s become his latter-day trademark), and Sumlin again evokes his past: he starts out his solo with a rhythmic nod to Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Baby,” and throughout he echoes his Wolfian heritage with musical nods and semiquotes. It’s highly effective: unlike some who rehash their trademarks into cliche, Sumlin has an imagination so fertile and unique that he manages to sound unpredictable even when quoting himself.

Unfortunately, it takes a while for that imagination to assert itself again on this album. “The Red Rooster” is the Willie Dixon standard, usually known these days as “Little Red Rooster,” that Wolf recorded and made his own in 1961. Again there’s sloppiness–this time a botched intro–on a song that Sumlin and Cotton, at least, should be able to play in their sleep. Because the arrangement is very similar to the one Wolf used, comparisons are inevitable, and of course Sumlin can’t hope to match the master’s majestic roar. The band seems to lag, and apparently Cotton can’t summon the wind to sustain a phrase long enough to develop anything of interest. Sumlin does try to find some new dimensions in his solo–picked sweetly, with surprising conservatism–but the overall effort falls flat.

After an enjoyable Cotton romp on the Little Walter harmonica war-horse “Juke,” Sumlin takes on his biggest challenge. “No Time for Me” is a slow, nightclubby blues ballad nicely supported by a melancholy eight-to-the-bar lead-in and featuring Sumlin’s voice at its most bleak. It’s a little weird–Sumlin’s attempts at pathos sometimes sound more like an adolescent whine than a grown man’s blues moan, and Cotton’s harp solo sputters a bit–but such ventures into new territory are heartening for an artist who’s often thought of as stylistically limited.

The final two tracks are strong. The generically titled “Got the Blues” once again feels like Wolf, and Sumlin’s sparse guitar work approaches the spine-chilling effect he used to get with Wolf, as he fires sharp sparks over the ominous, grinding lurch of the rhythm section.

“Old Friends,” by contrast, is as unexpected as it is delightful: loosely based on the chord structure of Big Walter’s 1953 harp classic “Easy” (meaning that it’s also reminiscent of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “When I Lost My Baby”), it’s Sumlin’s tender and moving affirmation of his lifelong friendship with James Cotton. Sumlin sings what amounts to a love song to his old buddy in his most plaintive, expressive voice–a rarity in the macho world of contemporary blues. Cotton, wisely, doesn’t try to match Horton’s original (although he does refer to it in spots) but creates his own, more rough-hewn version. A shining gem placed at the end of a maddeningly uneven record, it highlights the best of what’s gone before and makes us long for someone to find the formula that would allow Sumlin’s imagination the freedom it needs and the discipline it requires.