She said playing blues piano wasn’t proper for a girl
But these two fists of mine took me all over the world
I taught this old piano how to shake rattle and roll…
I’m a two fisted mama you just grab a hold
“Two Fisted Mama” – Katie Webster
The late Katie Webster, undoubtedly the queen of swamp boogie piano, blazed a brave path for piano pounding ladies. These five women have expanded Webster’s footprint into several genres of American music, displaying impressive songwriting talent along the way.
Kansas City–based Kelley Hunt delivers a dozen originals (some with a co-writer) that span blues, roots, soul, rock and mostly gospel on The Beautiful Bones, her most fully realized album to date. These tunes showcase her marvelous vocal range and ever evolving strength as a songwriter. Hunt went to Nashville and recruited a great group of session players including drummer Bryan Owings, guitarist John Jackson and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals. The resulting sound is closer to Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples than blues and this material allows Hunt to comfortably stretch out. Note especially the title track, “Let It Rain” and “The Sweet Goodbye.”
Like Hunt, Mississippi pianist Eden Brent desired an Americana touch for Jigsaw Heart, likewise heading to Nashville and calling on esteemed guitarist and producer Colin Linden. In fact, Owings and the McCrary Sisters also contribute here as well. Furthermore, Brent, like Hunt, embraces the entire melting pot of musical styles associated with the South. Generally, however, Brent sticks close to the blues, often reflecting the influence of her mentor, piano master Boogaloo Ames (whose influence is especially apparent on “Everybody Already Knows” and “Locomotive”). Brent widens her reach too though, covering Joan Armatrading, Nina Simone and even Toni Price.
The acoustic ensemble Davina and the Vagabonds have followed their excellent 2011 release, Black Cloud, with a new album appropriately titled Sunshine. Bandleader, pianist and vocalist Davina Sowers leads a horn-based group (sans guitarist and saxophonist) that combines the vintage jazz sounds of the ’20s through the ’40s with their own originals, paying tribute to Fats Waller, Aretha Franklin and even Patty Griffin. Moving beyond their Minneapolis base to thrill audiences in Europe and beyond, Davina and the Vagabonds have an inexplicable way of giving old-time blues and jazz a fresh, contemporary feel.
Describing albums as “genre-defying” has perhaps become cliché. But if you had to name one record that exquisitely fits that term, Deanna Bogart’s Just a Wish Away is it. Using a variety of mainly New Orleans-based players, Bogart demonstrates her considerable keyboard and sax chops across country music (lovely duet with Cris Jacobs on “If You Have Crying Eyes”), blues (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tightrope”) and soul (Sly Stone’s “Hot Fun the Summertime”). Add to that bassist Charlie Wooton’s jazz excursion “Conversing with Lincoln” and Bogart’s own swampy “Fine By Me Good Bayou,” and you have an album that will repeatedly provide musical surprises and technical brilliance.
Honey Alexander Piazza (aka Miss Honey) has been a formidable force on the 88s for husband Rod Piazza’s Mighty Flyers for 41 years now, and she’s recently showed her talents once again, on the Mighty Flyers’ Emergency Situation. Often categorized narrowly as “West Coast blues,” Rod and Honey front a band that commands a wide spectrum of early R&B, Chicago blues, Kansas City blues and vintage jazz. Covering songs like Sam Myers’ “Sleeping in the Ground,” Jimmy Rogers’ “Neighbor, Neighbor” and Amos Milburn’s “Milk and Water,” it’s clear that the Mighty Flyers transcend genres. With Miss Honey supporting Rod’s inventive chromatic solos, theirs is a driving, pulsating style of blues that would make Katie Webster and any other two fisted mama proud.
– Jim Hynes