Have you noticed how with some musical instruments it seems plenty of people can acquire a level of competence, but the number who can take it to the next level are few and far between. There's something about the instrument that it takes dedication or talent for the player to distinguish themselves from the field either by their sound or their inventiveness.
The more that I hear it being played the more convinced I am that blues harmonica is such an instrument. There are plenty of people out there who are capable of playing along with a band, keeping the beat, and throwing in a solo or two when the song requires it. Yet, for the most part, one player is interchangeable with the rest as very few have a real distinct style anymore. It seems odd that an instrument that looks to be so intimate when being played, has produced so few players who seem to be able to imbue their playing with a character unique to themselves.
So, I have to confess to feeling less than enthusiastic about listening to the new CD recorded by Mississippi Heat, Hattiesburg Blues, on Delmark Records when I saw the cover photo of a man in a Panama hat cradling a harmonica in his hands. Those misgivings were slightly mitigated when I flipped the package over and saw a listing of the various players who had contributed to the album's creation, as I recognized among them some of the finest players on the Chicago blues scene, including one of my favourite guitar players Lurrie Bell.
In a genre replete with a history of unique individuals, Mississippi Heat band leader, song writer, and harmonica player Pierre Lacocque's story alone is enough to warrant his inclusion in their number. Born in Israel, he was raised in his parents' home country of Belgium from 1957 until 1969 when his father, a Protestant minister, was offered a job in Chicago as a professor of Old Testament studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
Pierre had been listening to the music of people like Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin on the radio long before he came to America. He received his first harmonica, a plastic toy, when he was three years old, and still remembers the feelings of sadness that its sound was able to provoke in him. Still, it wasn't until his family moved to Chicago that he heard a harmonica played live through an amplifier. It probably didn't hurt that the first player he heard was Big Walter Horton, but he was blown away and felt like he had found his calling.
Passion became obsession, and he took to practicing his harmonica six to seven hours a day while in high school. Fate has a funny way of dealing with people's lives, and although he formed a couple of bands during his university days in Montreal, Canada, it was getting stiffed by a promoter during that time that put his dream on hold. Instead he became a social worker and worked as a clinician in the Pilsen neighbourhood of Chicago for ten years, until 1988.
Although successful and established, he realized there was a void in his life, and that was caused by not playing the blues. At the age of thirty-six he finally surrendered to the inevitable and went back to doing the work of his heart. Perhaps it was this rather unique life path that he followed in becoming a blues player that has shaped his playing and his song writing. For he has a willingness to experiment and a broader vision of what the blues can be than the majority of players that I've heard from this era.
Take for example two songs on the Hattiesburg Blues CD; "Calypso In Blue" and "Nature Is Cryin'". While I suppose there's nothing all that unique about incorporating Latin rhythms into the blues, it's the manner in which Lacocque does it on "Calypso In Blue" that caught my attention. Instead of it being the usual sort of shot-gun marriage you are liable to hear where the addition of a salsa beat is sufficient to call a song Latin, what distinguishes "Calypso" is the subtlety of the flavoring. How many other harmonica players do you know out there that can make their instrument sound like steel drums?
Guest percussionist Ruben Alvarez contributes his talents on this song and a few others to change the accent slightly. Instead of radically changing the songs, it is more like he is giving the tunes an extra layer of texture that makes them more interesting, It's like the addition of a spice that you might not expect in a dish, but done so discretely it serves to accentuate the flavors around it instead of overwhelming them.
When I first listen to a disc I tend to let it play in the background while I'm doing something else, and notice when it draws my attention. While "Calypso Blues" caught my attention because of the unique sound Pierre was producing with his harmonica, it was the lyrics of "Nature Is Cryin'" that pulled me up short. Inetta Visor, the group's lead vocalist, is a captivating singer in her own right, and hearing that lovely gospell/blues voice singing a blues song for mother earth was immediately arresting.
It's not often that you hear a blues song about something other than personal hardship or toil, and I have to admit the man/woman done treat me wrong theme, or variations of the same, can get tedious. It makes a refreshing change to hear a song that sings the blues about something else for a change. It still had all the classic motifs of a blues song where one party has treated another badly, only this time the victim wasn't some hypothetical person, but the planet we live on.
As I mentioned earlier Lurrie Bell is a featured guest on this CD, he sings and plays lead guitar on two of Pierre's compositions, and he brings his usual passion and unique style to them both. Aside from Lurrie and Ruben Alvarez, the band was also joined by Carl Weathersby. Carl has been a regular guest of the band (as Lurrie is) whenever possible on stage, and has played on all of their releases since 1998 save for one live recording. It's his guitar you hear soloing on nearly half this record and he also lends his voice to the song "Hell And Back".
Rounding out the guests on the disc are the Chicago Horns led by Kenny Anderson. Not only does he plays some great trumpet, his horn arrangements on the songs where they appear are ideally suited to the needs of each piece. He's accompanied by Hank Ford on tenor saxophone, Bill McFarland on trombone, and Willie Henderson on baritone saxophone. Aside from Pierre and Inetta, the regular members of Mississippi Heat are Giles Corey on guitar, Chris Cameron on keyboards, Spurling Banks on bass and Kenny Smith on Drums. Stephen Howard substitutes for Banks on a few tracks as does Dujuan Austin for Smith. Both these men regularly sit in with the band when Banks and Smith aren't available for gigs because of conflicts in schedules, so the substitutions appear seamless.
While it might sound somewhat confusing with all the different people appearing on this CD, and even the regular band members not playing consistently on all tracks, it's not reflected in the quality of the music. Pierre formed the band back in 1991 and this is their eighth recording with the same core group of people so they must be pretty comfortable with each other by now. Although that might be an understatement when you consider it only took them two days to record the disc and how good and tight it sounds.
Pierre Lacocque was drawn to the sound of the harmonica, and by extension the blues, before he even knew what the blues were. He brings a perspective to the music that allows him to cherish the traditions of those who came before him, while having the vision to see how he can build on it. Mississippi Heat's Hattiesburg Blues is a great example of just how good a job he and his band are doing in fulfilling that vision.