The Soul of John Black - Black John (2009)

The Soul of John Black
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We've heard "country funk" from soul bands before, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion since the 70s. Characterized by a love of dirty electric guitar chords and Hammond riffs, contemplative, occasionally raucous lyrics and rough, but sincere vocals, these songs once dominated soft rock and soul radio stations. The pioneering early work of bands like War, The Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang and The Isley Brothers (on T-Neck, not Motown) owed as much to Led Zeppelin as it did to blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. George Clinton's many pioneering funk bands may get all the glory in the public's revisionist memory, but there were others playing at the fringes of funk with equal -- if not greater -- commercial appeal. These occasionally unsung musicians were the original re-mixers of soul, funk, rock, and Latin music, ultimately creating an intoxicating collection of memorable songs rarely heard since -- outside of hip hop samples.
So, it's kind of nice to hear the Southern child of these bands on Black John, the latest release by The Soul of John Black.

The fundamental difference from the 70s funk bands and The Soul of John Black (TSOJB) is that the artist (whose name sounds like an album title) isn't a band at all, but a renowned soloist with respected roots in jazz, ska and blues. John "JB" Bingham was a member of Miles Davis band, then a fixture for eight years of the funk-ska band Fishbone before ultimately becoming highly esteemed session man in LA's music scene. Then in 2003, the release of his self-titled debut album, created with musical partner Chris Thomas, catapulted Bigham from obscurity to a grateful public's attention. The now rare blues project offered shades of the soft rock TSOJB would more fully realize on this current release, Black John. The Soul of John Black was followed by a more straight-ahead blues album, The Good Girl Blues, covering a blues spectrum-from swamp to hip hop influenced blues. The Good Girl Blues was a totally gutsy collection of songs that, though inconsistent in its production values, nevertheless received universal acclaim by both the Black and mainstream press. Sells for neither project reached the levels of Bigham's talent, as both projects lacked a bonafide radio hit.

"Betty Jean" may be about to change all that. The lead single from Black John is the lone standout on an album of enjoyable, but less glittery gems (more on why shortly). Standing at four minutes, seven seconds "Betty Jean" is the kind of obvious cross-over hit that could easily fit into several terrestrial radio formats and make Bigham the darling of late night TV musical guest spots. Telling the hooky tale of a man plotting to win the affections of a delectable lady described by Bigham in the most edible of ways, "Betty Jean" is swaggering and hopeful, greasy and sweet in its delivery. Without a hint of melisma to be found in this tightly constructed jam, the track manages all the dynamism of a sprawling, multi-transitional pop tune. And it could be the ticket to Bigham's big commercial break.

Not that there are not other jumpin' jivin' jams on Black John, the title track being a perfect propulsive example. The infectious, if curiously out of place hook on the gut-bucket blues, "Last Forever," makes it my number #2 draft pick. And the dirty old man blues of "White Dress" is a lyrical guilty pleasure: "white dress/black draws/baby, when you dancin' in the sun." "White Dress" and the amiable "Never Givin' Up" are delightful, but creatively suffer from chords and bass lines familiar to soul enthusiasts who will find themselves playing Name That Tune.

The opening bars of "Never Givin' Up" are a dead ringer to "If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips just for starters. The soft acoustic blues of "Holiday Inn" and country breeze of "Thinking About You" owe more than a little bit of their resigned tones to the early guitar-strummed ballads of the Isley Bros. ("You're Beside Me" and "You're The Key To My Heart" in particular) and Phoebe Snow. The musical ghosts of Rufus, P-Funk and even go-go king Chuck Brown take their turns haunting juke joints like "Ever Changin' Emotions." But as Peter Hadar once opined about a similar criticism of mine: every musician uses elements of everyone else.

I do believe it is a fine line between keeping tradition and borrowing too liberally from successful musical ideas. The question becomes: did you start with those ideas and move them forward to something uniquely yours, or stop where you started? The simple rhyming melodies of "Bottom Chick" and "I Knew A Lady" come close to being the former but there is enough irreverent frolic and frivolity to make these tracks seem more like sardonic takes of familiar blues and soul concepts, the heart of good funk. There are plenty of funky good times on Black John, but there are self-conscious moments, in between head-bobs, where you're not sure if you like it for itself, or for who it's been before. Maybe creating music more overtly derivative of proven classics is what's required these days for a blues man to get commercial attention. If, so? Mission Accomplished. Recommended.
 
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