Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Rod

Rod Piazza
& The Mighty Flyers

Soul Monster
Delta Groove Music

There are only a handful of harpmen working the circuit today that have risen to the professional level of Rod Piazza. He's in the company of Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and perhaps Mark Hummel as far as paying his dues,demanding respect for the instrument, and commanding decent pay for his talents. Piazza began playing and recording the blues way back in the '60s and he's still on top of his game and his twenty fourth album, Soul Monster, stands as a testament to that fact.

The challenge for a blues harp veteran such as Piazza is to avoid recycling what he's blown before in order to keep things fresh. He's always acknowledged this challenge and met it head on by employing different techniques. He's used low keyed harps on some albums, added a little funk to spice up blues covers, varied the amount of amplified nastiness, or he's messed with the meter or tempo of a classic. Regardless, though, Piazza's style shows through and is instantly recognizable. You know what you're getting with him, even though you don't really know what you're gonna get--other than top notch musicianship. What you know that you're gonna get is an album chock full of variety and Soul Monster is no exception to his formula.

Big, fat, chromatic octave chords open the proceedings on the title cut and there just ain't no mistaking that it's Rod Piazza producing those deep tones on this funky instrumental. It represents one of the four originals on the thirteen cut disc. One of the other originals is also an instrumental called Expression Session, but he worries the hell out of a diatonic harp on this one, with a musical head similar to what I've heard Charlie Musselwhite play on Hard Times from his According To album. The vibe is light, but Piazza's throwing all manner of note bending and low end runs all over the tune. Piazza's albums always include such instrument numbers to highlight his harp chops, Honey Piazza's estimable piano skills, his guitarist's string bending prowess, or even his drummer's stick wizardry. Soul Monster's third instrumental comes from Rod's main mentor, George "Harmonica" Smith, and it's called Sunbird and has that ol' amped up nasty sound and some stupendous lick ideas from one of the best. I can't recall a Piazza album void of paying homage to this West Coast master blaster.

One of my favorite cuts from Piazza's Alphabet Blues album was the slow burner, Blues in '92. He reprises it here, but re-christens it Tell Me About It Sam and introduces the tune with an anecdote about the late, great Sam Myers. Seems that the Mighty Flyers were sharing a bill with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets (Sam's band) and Sam requested that song from Piazza. He told Sam that he didn't think that he could remember the words. Sam told him, "Hell, I'll sing it." During the set, Sam was introduced to the crowd and when he got to the mic, he said, "You know, it's a shame when a man doesn't know the words to his own song." The song, about hard economic times, fits today's financial climate perfectly. Just goes to show that times were tough back in '92 too.

This disc certainly isn't challenging Piazza's lyrical ideas, since two of the originals are instrumentals and one is the aforementioned re-do and the fourth, called Cheap Wine, sounds down right silly to me. I think they were sitting around drinking the stuff when he came up with the words. It does make a darned good excuse to give everyone a chance to shine with their instruments,though, especially Dave Kida. He drums the song into submission and makes us forget the insipid lyrics. Actually, my favorite Piazza licks on the album make up for the song's short comings.

Honey's not granted the solo showcase that's standard on numerous Might Flyer's releases, but her talents sweep through the proceedings. The weaving of her notes throughout Jimmy Reed's Can't Stand To See You Go raise the song way above the standard shuffle and keeps it there. When Rod has her take it home, she lights into her keys intensely and does her own mentor, Otis Spann, proud. She also carries the bass line for the ensemble, because they have no bass player employed on this disc.

Speaking of Jimmy Reed. Piazza doesn't shy away from covering well worn chestnuts from the masters and he always does such justice to their memory. Little Walter is never far from the surface of what he's laying on us and Piazza has covered way more than many of Walter's tunes, but he throws in just enough Piazza style to keep it honest. So, I really don't mind hearing Key To The Highway again, particularly played with such feeling as Piazza gives it. You know, I'm quite sure that this Big Bill Broonzy song was worn out by everyone and their dog back when Little Walter chose to cover it, but he darned well made it his own. Piazza certainly doesn't make it his own as much as he's just paying a well played tribute. You Better Watch Yourself is pretty much a straight up LW cover, also, but hell, I like it. He does take Slim Harpo's Queen Bee out for a ride that has a significantly different vibe than the original Louisiana swamp groove.

Jimmy Liggins' That's What's Knocking Me Out has the West Coast style blues covered, along with Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So), which is sort of a duet with guitarist Henry Carvajal, who's also given a solo vocal turn on the '50s style do wop flavored Talk To Me, on which his voice fits appropriately--a bit like a middle aged Frankie Avalon. The song is replete with horns from Jonny Viau and Allen Ortiz. By the way, Carvajal's guitar slinging has grown on me since his first Mighty Flyer's outing. He just seems like a more comfortable fit for the group now than he was then. He also seems to shift styles a lot smoother than before and that is the bands forte.

They cover Hey, Mrs. Jones (a Jimmy Witherspoon hit), but they plant it firmly with a Cha Cha rhythm and Piazza employs a deep in the well echo to the vocal track. So, its a bit removed from the West Coast type of stuff that's associated with Witherspoon. That's the kind of stuff you gotta watch (or listen to) to understand how Piazza makes the old, new again, and keeps it fresh.

So, if you know Piazza, you know what to expect--plenty of variety, some old, some new, some West Coast, some Chicago, but all played well by one of he best blues bands in the country and of course, with harp blown by one of the best in the business. By the way, Delta Groove Music certainly seems like a great fit for Rod Piazza. The owner, Randy Chortoff lets Rod be Rod in the studio and we are rewarded with some great blues. Anyway--'nuff for now.

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