Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: 'Sweet Giant of the Blues' - Otis Spann (1969)

It is hard to not write about the great blues pianist Otis Spann; he was a pillar of the classic Chicago blues. Indeed, he was in Muddy Waters' band from 1952 until 1968... in the blues world that's almost a lifetime, as many session players would often leave a band to pursue solo efforts. Muddy Waters always chose the best of the best to play in his band, and he also encouraged them to find their own success. 

Otis Spann, called a brother by Muddy, was the leading blues pianist of his time. His unique playing and soulful voice propelled him to the top of the pack very quickly, and he is included on many of the classic blues standards of the 50's and 60's. He released his first solo album in 1960, and until his early death in 1970 released several more and performed with other bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and more.

This album called 'Sweet Giant of the Blues' was recorded in 1969 on the Bluesway label produced by Bob Thiele. The album was released in 1970 months before his death. It has been re-released this year on the Ace label. 

This album features a few genre cross-overs; other than being a strict Chicago blues, 12-bar shuffle romp (which I don't mind either way), has some Latin beats, funk soul, and R 'n B with a younger set of performers: Max Bennett on bass, Tom Scott on sax, Paul Humphrey on drums and Louie Shelton on guitar. Otis Spann's playing is spot on, however he doesn't take the solo spotlight on this album. He instead takes the important rhythmic role, leaving the gaps to be filled by the band. It's a fairly short album at 8 songs:  

Got My Mojo Working

Sellin' My Thing

Moon Blues

I'm a Dues Payin' Man

I Wonder Why

Bird in a Cage

Hey Baby

Make a Way

The album starts with a cover of Muddy Waters' 'I Got My Mojo Workin', that features sax playing by Tom Scott on the response during the chorus, unlike the original when the band sang back to Muddy. It's a pretty straightforward and cleanly played song. 

'Sellin' My Thing' features a Latin sounding beat with distorted guitar playing; Otis's singing and piano is funky as heck. 'Moon Blues' is a minor blues, and sheds the sad soulful side of Otis. 

'I'm a Dues Payin' Man' is a funk soul track, featuring heavy basslines and sax playing and is a pretty engaging track to hear at high volumes. 'I Wonder Why' is a straight-ahead Chicago style 12-bar blues. Nothing to surprising here beside the wah-guitar solo. 

'Bird in a Cage' is a slow instrumental blues, and features a heavy fuzz guitar solo and an extended sax solo which is great for a midnight drink while reminiscing on old times. My standout track. 

'Hey Baby' is another straight forward 12 bar blues, and the album closes with the gospel-like song 'Make a Way' where Otis sings: "I know my Jesus will make a way." It is by far the most soulful song on the whole album.

Overall it's a great album to have in a blues collection, as it's very reflective mellow album with a few upbeat tracks to change the pace. Perhaps not the best album Otis has made in his short career, but stands out to show his versatility as a musician. I always feel sad about losing him at an early age, especially when I heard Muddy Waters' talk about him so much after his death... he was devastated, and I somehow feel this loss once I hear him play.

Here's my standout track off the album, 'Bird in a Cage':

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