I’ve finally run across one of those musicians where I can honestly say; what can I say about this guy? I could say he plays guitar and sings; but, that’s like describing a beautiful, multi-coloured flower, with an exquisite scent, as a plant. It’s so damn inadequate.
Faced with an artist who somehow meshes the musical styles of three continents (at least) into one song, it doesn’t seem right to call him a blues guitarist, but that’s the best place to start for Bob Brozman. It’s not that he doesn’t play the blues, because lord knows he plays them better than most anyone alive today; but again, it comes back to the plant thing: inadequate.
Just look at the instruments he’s credited with playing on Blues Reflex. The average song will feature at least three guitars; ranging from a National Tricone Baritone, a Kona Rocket Hawaiian Guitar, a regular National Tricone and others; a variety of other stringed instruments including a seven string Hawaiian and a ten string Bolivian Charango; and just for variety he does the percussion and sings as well.
So, I hear you saying, there’s lots of guys who do that. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that with the exception of only a couple other guitarists that I can think of (Ry Cooder and Harry Manx) he’s one of the few that immerses themselves in the guitar and its culture to learn how to incorporate it into what they are doing musically. It’s not just cool, or a passing fad for him; it becomes part of his sound.
Blues Reflex shows off that variety of sound in one package. In fact it’s sort of like a mini world tour of Bob stylistically. Being this is the blues it makes sense the disc starts in church with “Dead Cat On The Line”. It’s introduced by a taped clip of a 1929 radio sermon from the Rev. J.M. Gates and then moves into the song. It’s a message song about communications and how the wires don’t sometimes connect because there’s a dead cat on the line messing with transmission.
It’s a slow rolling song with two guitars, playing off each other, and Brozman’s voice scratching and chopping out the lyrics. First impressions are what usually stick with me, and in the case of Bob, whether he actually sounds like him or not, he evoked in me thoughts of Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong with a Tom Waits attitude.
It’s on the third track, “One Steady Roll”, that our world tour starts with a stop in Reunion Island for and infusion of African sega rhythms. Bob plays all the percussion on the two guitars used in the song, and moves Chicago blues to the Indian Ocean without missing a beat.
From here on in our odyssey is in full swing. Whether it’s an original song penned for this recording, “New Guinea Blues”, or a reworking of a classic like “Death Come Creepin'” Bob’s versatility and comfort with a variety of musical styles shines through.
Although he has an obvious passion for the old resonator sound generated by a variety of National guitars, he knows enough not to limit himself to just one tone musically. To take some of the hard edge of the steel strings away, he will almost always use at least one softer strung guitar. What this allows him to do is create two distinct sounds (at least) so that the listener can easily discern the multiple textures of a song.
Listen to “Poor Me”, Bob’s adaptation of a Charley Patton recording. He doesn’t change the lyrics, plays it like the old time song it is (1920s blues) but the guitar sounds are something out of Bob’s heart and mind. He starts with the sweeping sounds of the softer strung guitars, according to the credits two seven string Hawaiian guitars, and then part way through the song he adds the stronger sound of the National.
Like the symphony orchestra properly utilized by a composer and a conductor, Bob uses the various sounds at his disposal to increase the impact of his pieces. He doesn’t just cover classic blues songs and play them, he interprets them for his audience.
His devotion to the genre is obvious from the love and care with which he treats the material. Not one song on this disc has the feeling of being “tossed” off. There is far too much attention paid to the details that go into making the songs work.
“There’s so much music out there…I guess I’ll get some sleep in the next life” pretty much sums up the excitement one feels emanating from Bob’s music. This is a man who is in love with his music and sinks himself heart and soul into every song he records. His devotion is such that it extends beyond the playing, to the instruments he utilizes.
He has become an expert on the unique sounding National guitar, both as a player and as a historian. Not only has he accumulated a large collection of customized instruments, he also developed a close relationship with John Dopyera the inventor of the guitar. In 1993 Bob published The History And Artistry Of National Resonator Instruments as a repository for all the information he had accumulated about that unique guitar.
Blues Reflex is only one of Bob’s 26 discs available at this time. More then half of the remainder are musical collaborations with individuals from the variety of musical cultures he draws upon for the playing you hear on Blues Reflex.
Bob Brozman is no dilettante playing at “world music”. He is an aficionado of not just guitars, but the music that resonates from the hearts of peoples from the Mississippi Delta to Papua New Guinea. Blues Reflex offers us a glimpse into the world of Bob Brozman via his love of the blues. The only question remaining is: how many of the trails he blazed are you going to follow after listening to this one disc.