JW-Jones is a seasoned veteran at an age when many artists are just getting started. Midnight Memphis Sun is his sixth release – his debut came out while the Ottawa-based guitar slinger was a mere 18-years old.
Jones travels in esteemed company indeed. His last project featured guests Little Charlie Baty and Junior Watson; this time out he’s managed to snag Charlie Musselwhite, who contributes harmonica to three tracks, with the great Hubert Sumlin (long-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf), appearing on three tunes as well. And the bulk of the recording took place at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, hallowed ground to those who revere rock ‘n’ roll (home to the earliest recordings of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, Sun is arguably the place where it all started).
While he showed remarkable musical maturity right from the start, there’s been a steady progression in Jones’ music over the course of his career. His playing has become more fluid, his compositions have greater depth, and the arrangements have become more complex and musically satisfying with each release. He’s got blazing chops, but shows an innate sense of restraint, always putting the needs of the song first and making sure each note counts.
Jones enlists the aid of award-winning author Tim Wynne-Jones (no relation) on a handful of compositions here, with the result songs one can think about as well as feel. And he’s got two top-notch outfits backing him up – his own band (bassist Martin Regimbald and drummer Jeff Asselin) on five tracks, with the stellar rhythm section of Larry Taylor (bass) and Richard Innes (drums) appearing on seven. Jesse Whitely, who helped with horn arrangements, is on organ and piano throughout, while the horn section itself, featured on three tracks, hails from JW’s hometown.
Much of the material mines familiar themes, primarily love gone wrong (hey, that’s why they call it the blues), but for the most part Jones and Wynne-Jones forgo typical blues clichés, They can get topical – “Born Operator” is a withering indictment of corporate greed and the pain it causes ordinary folk – but Jones shows that can also reach down deep on the stark, brooding “Mean Streak.” Covers include Lowell Fulson’s “Love Grows Cold,” Jimmy Reed’s “I Don’t Go For That,” and a surprising take on Bryan Adam’s “Cuts Like A Knife,” originally a quintessential slice of arena-rock, here a tough, compact shuffle that works remarkably well.
Musselwhite’s contributions are subtle but invariably effective, eschewing solo acrobatics for understated support that adds welcome texture to the tunes he’s on, while Sumlin gets a chance to cut loose in his distinctive style on “Howlin’ With Hubert,” an instrumental duel between the two guitarists (for the record, no one sounds quite like Hubert, one of the most distinctive guitarists of all time, but Jones holds his own quite nicely).
If there’s a single problem with the disc, it’s Jones’ somewhat monotonous vocals. He’s a good singer with excellent phrasing but his voice isn’t the most resonant instrument around, and tends to wear thin over time. Given his ability to attract stellar talent (previous outings have seen him working with the likes of Kim Wilson and Colin James), he might consider handing some of the vocals over to guests next time out, if only to add a bit of variety.
But that’s quibbling, really, as Midnight Memphis Sun is a first-rate collection all the way – superior songs, intelligent arrangements, and great performances throughout. He’s still relatively young by blues standards, but JW-Jones is a fully mature artist, and this is a fine addition to an already impressive catalog. Recommended!