Blues comes in many shades, from the down-‘n’-dirty intensity of, say, Howlin’ Wolf to the smooth supper-club stylings of B.B. King at his most elegant. Johnnie Bassett, long a fixture in the Motor City, definitely leans to the latter, with an understated and refined approach that nonetheless packs a potent emotional punch.
Bassett’s been absent from the studio for far too long, his last recording coming out ‘way back in 1999. He’s always had a unique sound, usually eschewing bass in favor of bass pedals from whomever manned the organ chair. Here he employs a more conventional lineup, with a full-time bassist on all but one track, and a fine horn section, led by saxophonist Keith Kaminsky, filling out the sound with superb arrangements.
Things start off rather slowly with the slinky “A Woman’s Got Ways,” including a spoken-word intro from Bassett (“Listen up, fellas …”) that initially raises the specter of a cheese-fest. But Bassett and friends quickly take the tune into basic blues territory, and the track proves a fine warm-up. Things swing much harder with “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” a rousing rave-up powered by handclaps and big horns in support of Bassett’s smooth vocals and stinging guitar.
And that pretty much sets the pattern for a fine set that values elegance of expression over intensity. Bassett remains refined and dignified throughout, sound is clean and arrangements are exquisitely tasteful. In lesser hands, that might spell boredom – blues typically needs at least a bit of dirt to sound real. But Bassett, gentleman that he is, comes across as a knowing elder statesman, one who’s been through the fray, delivering his lines with quiet authority and assurance.
Father-son team Robert and Chris Codish – the latter the band’s keyboard player – wrote the bulk of the tunes, all ideally tailored to Bassett’s strengths. That means mostly lighthearted fare with a sly sense of the salacious – “Nice Guys Finish Last,” “Feeling Lucky,” and “Meat On Them Bones” three prime examples – and mature reflections on mistakes made (“I Can’t See What I Saw In You,” with guest James Morris’ pedal steel adding intriguing texture).
Covers include “Your Real Gitcheegumee,” a novelty tune by Leonard King Jr., and a fine take on “Georgia” not too far removed from the late Mr. Charles’ definitive version. Disc-ending “My Old Flame” isn’t the familiar standard – instead, it’s a moody rumination on past loves, a fitting closer to a classy collection from a genuine gentleman.
Bassett is big news in Detroit, but he’s never really emerged to take a well-deserved place in the pantheon of blues greats. He’s in fine form here, though, and with decent distribution this outing should bring him national acclaim. Bassett’s back indeed …Powered by Sidelines