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Music Review: James Cotton – Giant

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In mortal hands, the diatonic harmonica is a limited instrument. In the hands of a true giant like James Cotton though, its possibilities seem virtually limitless.

Even casual blues fans shouldn’t need an introduction to Cotton, one of the last of the original innovators. Along with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Cotton helped to define the harmonica’s place in modern blues. And he’s remained one of the instrument’s most distinct and identifiable stylists, with a high energy attack and a sound all his own.

He’s getting on in years, of course (as he was born in 1935), and his voice–always a bit hoarse, even in his younger days–is long gone. But he knows how to assemble and lead a top-notch touring outfit. Here he’s working exclusively with his own road-tested band, with the results being a tough, hard-hitting collection that sounds surprisingly fresh and vital.

The blues is often referred to as timeless, and Cotton’s choice of material is just that. Former employer Muddy Waters is the most prominent composer, with three tunes (“Find Yourself Another Fool,” “Sad Sad Day,” and “Going Down Main Street”). Also included is Jimmy Rodgers’ classic “That’s Alright,” and immortal standards “How Blue Can You Get?” and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You, Baby.” They’re all old tunes that have been covered many times, but the themes are still relevant–the blues are still with us, still part of the human emotional spectrum-and Cotton and friends tear through ‘em as though they were written in the studio that day.

Cotton contributes four of his own, two with help from guitarist Slam Allen. One assumes Allen’s responsible for the lyrics on “Heard You’re Getting Married” and the deeply funky “Change,” as Cotton’s solo credits are both for instrumentals. “With The Quickness” is a short, furious blast of harmonica heaven reminiscent of Cotton’s signature tune, “The Creeper Creeps Again,” showing Cotton’s still got chops to spare. And “Blues For Koko,” a tribute to the late ‘Queen Of The Blues’ that closes the disc, is a straight-ahead 12-bar grinder with some truly astonishing work on the lickin’ stick.

Cotton’s always favored a healthy dose of funk in his blues, and his rhythm section (bassist Noel and drummer Kenny Neal Jr., both members of an extended and esteemed musical clan), is an astonishingly supple yet muscular machine. (Check out the slippery bass that underpins “How Blue Can You Get?”). Guitarists Allen and Tom Holland are an ideal tag team, trading leads and rhythm with instinctive ease. Allen handles most of the vocals, with Holland stepping up on “Sad Sad Day.” They’re both sturdy and workmanlike, though Allen definitely deserves the lion’s share; there are a few shining moments when he sounds a bit like B.B. King (and that’s a very good thing!).

Although he remains a giant on the harmonica, Giant isn’t overly harp-centric, as the sound here is that of a working band, with Cotton’s harp integral to the arrangements, yet never overpowering the song itself. His work has always been about tricky filigrees and sharp blasts that accent a tune. It’s the sheer expressiveness of his harmonica that matters, the subtle runs and quicksilver fills that embellish the song. And both his tone and approach remain utterly distinctive.

A giant indeed, Cotton is that rarest of harmonica players, an artist with an instantly identifiable sound, tempered with the musical wisdom of a lifetime’s immersion in the blues.

Given his age, stature, and health, it would be understandable if Cotton were to rest a bit, to take a reflective approach in keeping with his years of experience. Instead, Giant delivers the blues in all its sweaty, dangerous glory–blues for all the right reasons, vital, urgent and bursting with life and feel, the most important element of all–which takes priority over technical but sterile perfection. He may have seen and done it all by now, but Cotton’s still making music from the heart, aimed straight at the soul.

Very highly recommended!

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About John Taylor

  • Doug Morgan

    I’ve been a big Cotton fan since I saw him and his first band (w/ Sam Lay–drums and Luther Tucker–guitar) in 1968. If you can find it, Verve has a compulation CD of his first 3 Verve/Folkways LPs that’s worth seeking out. Yes, it’s got “The Creeper” on it.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/josh-hathaway Josh Hathaway

    How can you not love Cotton? I haven’t gotten this disc (yet) but I’m very glad to read your thoughts on it, John. I’ll be looking in to this very, very soon. Well done on the review.