Snooks Eaglin

Black Top 1072


Johnny Heartsman

Alligator 4800

A lot of blues artists are touted as versatile, but on closer inspection few live up to the billing. Even some of our most influential blues performers have a rather narrow range of musical expression; usually what’s remarkable about them is the emotional range they achieve within this relatively restricted scope.

There are exceptions; some blues artists, for instance, have straddled traditional blues and more sophisticated jazz stylings. Historically artists who’ve refused to limit themselves to the strict blues form–rhythmically, harmonically, or in terms of chord changes or melodic structure–have often established themselves as unique talents. Among these are Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, the great women vocalists of Bessie Smith’s era, and even in a protean sense Robert Johnson.

Today, though plenty of eager young hot-licks types have been charging into the blues world to claim turf, few artists have the musicality to be considered truly versatile, in the sense of crossing genre boundaries. Two who might qualify are veteran guitarist Fird (“Snooks”) Eaglin and multiinstrumentalist Johnny Heartsman. Although their styles and backgrounds are different, in both of them a blues sensibility intersects with proficient musicianship and is embellished by an instinctive feel for jazz as that was once defined by Whitney Balliett: “the sound of surprise.”

Eaglin is a New Orleans legend who was a force in the 50s-era Crescent City R & B explosion and has since become a mainstay on the blues festival circuit, though he’s never really been a household name outside Louisiana. Self-taught, eclectic in his choice of material nearly to the point of mania, he’s built a reputation in a city known for its free spirits as a flamboyant musical maverick. It’s sometimes forgotten, though, that he’s a serious and dedicated musician capable of taking the most outrageous chances and pulling off apparently impossible stylistic juxtapositions with almost insouciant ease. Teasin’ You, Eaglin’s new offering on Black Top, showcases him near the top of his form as a thoroughly modern guitarist with deep blues roots. Although he’s spent virtually all his life in New Orleans, he’s managed to absorb several regional styles and fuse them in his own distinctive sound.

Lloyd Price’s “Baby, Please Come Home,” the opener, sets the tone for the entire disc. It kicks off with a gritty string bend, then jumps into a joyful Gulf Coast-style shuffle, while Eaglin’s vocal “wah-wah” chorus provides a delightful example of New Orleans R & B’s love of nonsense syllables. Eaglin sings a young man’s music in an old man’s accents, and his guitar sings with an ageless spirit. He scatters dirty chords amid crisp, tubular leads, supple bends, and lithe, wide-fingered excursions through the registers. Tenor man Grady Gaines weighs in with a juicy, economical sax break; behind him the tightly arranged horns, with their sharp attack and roistering harmonies, provide an echo of the parade music that gave rise to New Orleans jazz and strongly influenced the Crescent City R & B style.

Occasionally Eaglin’s voice is a weakness on this record. Its thin plaintiveness and down-home accents are fine on blues and traditional numbers, but his voice is not quite supple enough to pull off soul ballads and R & B dance tunes. “Soul Train,” an Earl King composition, is basically an update of Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1,000 Dances”–dangerously hip stuff, you might think, for a codger like Eaglin, and in fact he doesn’t sound entirely comfortable singing in the modern soul-rock meter. On guitar, though, the man is virtually impossible to confound. His leads are predictably hot, but what’s really remarkable is his chording–rhythmically propulsive and harmonically in the same groove as the rest of the arrangement. Eaglin’s musical sense is so deep that he can fit into just about any context you throw at him.

Eaglin sounds very much at home on Billy (“the Kid”) Emerson’s “When It Rains It Pours.” He plays it in the traditional easy-rolling New Orleans two-chord ballad style, with the six/eight piano triplet pattern popularized by Fats Domino. His guitar break echoes Earl King’s classic work, especially his knack of bridging the stop-time break with a few well-placed notes or chords, then cutting back into the melody without breaking momentum. Overall the sound never quite blends into that smooth, laid-back aural gumbo they used to concoct in Cosimo Matassa’s fabled New Orleans studio back in the 50s, but it’s a delightful workout nonetheless.

It would be wrong, however, to think of Eaglin as a New Orleans R & B classicist. On an up-tempo rocker like Larry Williams’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” Eaglin cooks from the first note. Again, his voice is a limitation, but he has a great time shouting the verses. And his guitar work on “Lizzy” is characteristically audacious–he alternates leads and chords, providing his own rhythm-guitar patterns as he builds a solo that’s a classic rock-and-roll burner. I can’t think of many younger guitarists who could rock more exuberantly than he does on his final choruses here, building up to a screaming climax then popping and sputtering over the top.

Eaglin treats Muddy Waters’s “Red Beans” like a flat-out rocker. As the band riffs ecstatically behind him, his solo rises from a dense pack of rowdy chords into a series of buzzing rock-and-roll choruses; finally the band falls into place alongside him, contributing their own damn-the-police-let’s-shoot-out-the-lights mayhem. The horns ride the bass line on this one in the patented New Orleans R & B style.

“Red Beans” stands in total contrast to the swinging Tiny Bradshaw instrumental “Heavy Juice,” which starts off with a hip, almost bebop horn intro laid over a swinging shuffle beat. It’s primarily a showcase for saxophonist Mark (“Kaz”) Kazanoff, who boots out a sinewy, roadhouse-type solo–he doesn’t so much play over the backing as barrel right through the middle of it. As always Eaglin surprises, digging into the lowest bass regions then bursting like a fountain into rippling middle- and upper-register notes. In contrast to his rather stodgy, countryish image onstage, he swings his ass off here like the hippest player on Rampart Street.

Like all great interpreters, Eaglin transforms everything he touches into a vehicle for his own musical personality. His somewhat primitive and bluesy voice is an advantage on “Black Night,” the old Charles Brown hit. Where Brown sang the song as a moody meditation, Eaglin sings as if it hurts, his voice tight and constricted–appropriate for a tale of bluesy loneliness. Meanwhile his melancholy chording retains a bit of the nightclubby ennui Brown brought to the song. Even here, though, Eaglin can’t resist a puckish moment of gauntlet throwing: toward the end he shows modern jazz guitarists, who may think they invented the gimmick of singing in unison with their solos, that he can do it and sound just like the ghost of George Benson’s bluesier grandfather.

Eaglin’s personal signature on this LP is probably his update of “Sleepwalk,” a deliciously corny rock-and-roll ballad in three/four time that dates back to 1959. The original was a duet between Santo Farina’s plaintive steel guitar and his brother Johnny’s rhythm-guitar backing; Eaglin plays both parts impeccably and even extracts some genuine pathos from the maudlin tune. Again he shows that he’s no novelty act or dusted-off relic struggling through modernist mine fields but a thoroughly contemporary musician, pushing the limits of any form he takes on.

If Eaglin parades his versatility like a one-man musical Mardi Gras, Johnny Heartsman sports his with the cool aplomb of an urban hipster. Heartsman is a smooth purveyor of California-style bluesy sophistication; he alternates between guitar, flute, and keyboards, reveling in his musicianship and refusing to compromise his integrity for the sake of commercial success. His work is consistently well crafted and adult, but unfortunately that combination is not what’s in vogue in the rock, blues, or R & B mainstreams.

The Touch, Heartsman’s new offering on Alligator, was lovingly produced by Chicago’s Dick Shurman, Heartsman’s longtime friend and admirer. The mix is clear and spacious, leaving plenty of room for the multitextured subtleties of Heartsman and his band.

“Serpent’s Touch,” the opener, kicks off with an odd intro accented on the upbeat, then slithers into a mellow middle-register guitar break with a breezy organ backing and a pop-jazz bridge. Heartsman immediately defines his turf: his guitar solo is impeccable, with an unmistakable west-coast smoothness but also harsher overtones, especially in his chording. This is sophisticated blues for adults, not pabulum for the blues-and-booze crowd.

Heartsman demonstrates his expertise through subtle tricks and variations on established blues patterns. The bass on “Paint My Mailbox Blue” sounds as if it’s accenting on the upbeat, a task usually reserved for the drummer in this type of Texas/California jump outing. The effect is unique–a hiccuppy but smoothly propulsive bass line. Heartsman contributes some scat singing that could have been gimmicky but ends up sounding more like the modern bluesman’s answer to Slam Stewart.

Occasionally Heartsman sounds as if he were trying to expand his appeal. “You’re So Fine” is harsher than his usual fare, with a freaky string-bending guitar intro; there are echoes of post-“Gangster of Love” Johnny (“Guitar”) Watson in the lurching rhythm-guitar patterns and in Heartsman’s solo, which squirms and writhes into fuzzy contortions, always sliding sinuously over the beat, never too funky but dirty as hell by insinuation. The song’s finale portrays Heartsman and the cats on the street, noisily ogling a young lady: “You’re so sexy, let me buy you a drink, let me buy you a coat, a hat, a house.” It’s somewhat risky in our prim times, but as on the later “Walkin’ Blues,” the good-natured macho posturing is redeemed by the tongue-in-cheek humor.

Like Eaglin, Heartsman is blessed with an instrumental dexterity that sometimes sets challenges his voice can’t match. In “Got to Find My Baby” Heartsman plays over the complex funk backbeat with an intensity he doesn’t always show. But he doesn’t really bring passion to it, especially in his singing. His approach is first and foremost musical; the lyrics, the story, even the emotion are secondary to the serious fun of swinging and jamming. Similarly, “Please Don’t Be Scared of My Love” is set in a brawny horn arrangement, with Heartsman’s guitar out front, but one wishes his vocals were more expressive. The lyrics, laced with anger, plead desperately (“You keep your friends around you like a granite wall of stone / You’re scared to be with me, baby / And scared to be alone”); the horns are low-down and mean; the rhythm lurks ominously. Heartsman’s guitar spits with the appropriate venom: his solo quotes briefly from Ray Charles and Betty Carter’s “Lonely Avenue” before descending into lower-register growls and then ascending into a series of chords in his trademark “moaning” style, sounding appropriately down-and-out. But his vocals sound detached.

“Attitude,” a full-bodied shuffle complete with horn section, is more completely realized. This kind of jaunty jump is right down Heartsman’s alley, and here his vocals fit perfectly. The lyrics bite–“Blamin’ everyone but you for your luck / Better stop your whinin’, sounds like your record’s stuck / It’s your attitude, it’s your attitude . . . / I’d punch you if you were a dude, it’s your attitude”–but Heartsman’s delivery smooths over the barbs without destroying their meaning.

When Heartsman puts his guitar down and plays flute or keyboards, his mastery of diverse styles is even more evident–and so is the challenge facing any record company promoting him to a general audience. Despite its solid African American credentials the flute has always been somewhat controversial as a blues or jazz instrument. You can’t really bend notes on it, and its mellow, tubular sound doesn’t lend itself either to screaming passion or seduction, despite its sexy purr. At its best jazz instrumentation mimics the human voice, so a man playing flute will always be something of an aural female impersonator, exploring the sweet, light-toned sides of his musical personality. Heartsman’s a sweet flute player, and he exploits the instrument’s sensual potential by caressing, kissing, and fluttering his tongue against it; but over the duration of “Tongue” his playing gets repetitive. “Oops” is more successful; Heartsman’s flute jumps and jives over the top of this organ-drenched funk. The bridge provides a mellow pop-jazz interlude, then the piece cuts back into the lively main rhythm.

But as enjoyable as “Oops” is, one wonders what audience Heartsman and Alligator were trying to reach. The production isn’t lush or extravagant enough for an urban contemporary audience that grew up on Chic and Bobby Brown, but it’s far from sufficiently low-down to attract the modern blues crowd. And the repetitive funk groove doesn’t swing with enough depth or variety for most jazz lovers. It’s simply tasteful, good-timey pop music with strong blues overtones, embellished by first-rate musicianship and a sincerity that brings substance to what could easily have been a glib enterprise.

In contrast, “Endless” jumps aggressively at you, apparently out of nowhere: a grinding funk groove, it sounds for all the world like an outtake from an old War session (minus, for some reason, the horns where they would have been exhilarating). Heartsman’s voice isn’t remotely appropriate for hard funk, but the aggressive male chorus behind him adds an effective grittiness, and Artis Joyce’s bass pops and boogity-boots all over the place.

The closing number is a reprise of “Tongue,” subtitled “Unexpurgated Version” and featuring vocalist J’Neen groaning and gasping like the lady receiving the tongue bath on “Candy Licker,” Marvin Sease’s notorious hit from a few years back. It’s fun for about 30 seconds, but the aural porn doesn’t get the geysers gushing for anywhere close to the five minutes and 22 seconds this song runs. Apparently Heartsman insisted on doing it, and though it might be entertaining enough in live performance, as a finishing number it detracts from an LP that’s otherwise mature, musically superb, and adventurous in a refreshingly low-key, unself-conscious way.