Artist: Sugar Blue
Label: M.C. Records
Release Date: 04/29/2016
Mick Jagger says this about Sugar Blue: “He’s a very strange and talented musician.” Sugar Blue, who is famous for his riffs with the Stones, had this to say about them when I did a radio interview with him several years ago, “They’re a bunch of blues guys with British accents.” Given that Sugar Blue resides in Chicago and plays lots of blues clubs and festivals, he’s labeled as a blues guy too. However, that’s way too easy. His signature harmonica style has as much to do with jazz, given his mentors like Dexter Gordon and Lester Young, as it does with blues. He blows as many notes on the harmonica as these great saxophonists do. His playing is far more lyrical than other harp players and he doesn’t even sing like most bluesmen. Besides the Stones, he’s played with Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Stan Getz, and Willie Dixon. He’s at the intersection of blues, jazz, and pop. Add that all up and maybe it explains the ‘strange’ reference. It’s impossible to compare anyone to him.
This is his first studio recording since Threshold in 2010. Sugar Blue, aka James Whiting, wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 tunes here, also covering Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann.” He brings aboard bass players Johnny B. Gayden and Bill Dickens as well as venerable saxophonist Eddie Shaw to join his powerful road band. Guitarist Rico McFarland is especially outstanding.
You might expect that the material doesn’t just center on the usual topics of love and lost love. In the song “New York City,” he renders his own story in a succinct three minutes over rambling, acoustic blues. He uses some special effects to embellish “Cyber Blues” and has the backing of a choir of four on “12 Steps,” Progressive soul singer and social activist Maya Azucena & Sonix the Mad Scientist add to “Life on the Run.” Sugar Blue’s dazzling harmonica playing remains the focal point across the diverse range of topics and sounds. His vocals are clean and more akin to a pop singer than a blues singer. It all adds up to a very modern, progressive sound, often smooth and lyrical, far from traditional 12 bar blues.
Sugar Blues will be touring behind this recording. Catch his live shows, best exemplified here by the closing track, “Time.” He and his band are riveting, often delivering at breakneck tempos while Sugar Blue soars along, hitting more notes than you can possibly imagine.
– Jim Hynes