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Music Review: Johnnie Bassett – The Gentleman Is Back

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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 …

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