Stone Tone Records [Release date 18.06.14]
‘Energy’ is a hugely original instrumental album built round the visceral urban energy of the city, in this case NYC. It’s an old school album built on coherent compositions that evoke moods, feelings and moments in time, on a musical journey that mirrors the ebbs and flows of the day.
Big Apple Blues features a bunch of blues vets who in their own words have: “spent a lifetime playing the blues.”
Recorded as a live in the studio project, ‘Energy’ features Baron Barry Harrison on drums (with Tom Papadatos featured on 2 tracks), Admir ‘Dr Blues’ Hadzic on bass, Zach Zunis on guitar, Jim Alfredson on organ and keys, Anthony Kane on harp, Chris Emenizer on saxes and Bruce Tyler and Matt Becker on handclaps and effects.
It’s an album that bristles with enthusiasm, drive, energy and spark, and has rarely been off my play list for the last 12 months. It’s a shock to realise it’s already a year old, time enough anyway to generate some great reviews, so let me add mine to that list now!
Such is the substance of the 9 tracks here, that you almost forget it’s an instrumental blues album, full of funk and jazz edges played by an inspired band that unravels the kind of sumptuous grooves and intricate playing that can only come through experience.
There’s a real ‘can do spirit’ at the heart of an album that stands head and shoulders above other blues related releases in the last year. ‘Energy’ is built on strong arrangements, intricate playing, sparkling solos and a musical language that evokes the various moods of the day.
The album’s concept is helpfully explained by the liner notes. From the startling introductory alarm on ‘Wake Up And Do Something’ that levers us into a working day and the percussive, harp-heavy groove of ‘1-278 Grind’, ‘Energy’ evokes a daily journey to the metropolis.
Anthony Kane’s harp and Zach Zunis’s wah-wah complement each other perfectly, as Jim Alfredson adds layered organ over a cooking rhythm section, on a beautifully crafted musical journey that ends with a slammed car door.
Anthony Kane’s expressive harp and Alfredson’s mighty Hammond on ‘Morning Jive’ evoke the bustle of another of the day. Not since the days of Jimmy Smith and younger Stevie Winwood has a Hammond sounded so powerful.
There’s an inherent sense of communality that subtly pushes the solos to another level, as evidenced by Zach Zunis’s meandering wah-wah solo which captures the vitality of the project.
The band is equally good on the funereal slow blues of ‘Remembering Eni’, which is topped and tailed by chiming bells and is given an emotional pull by a staccato guitar solo, earthy horns and a deep-toned harp solo. It’s a reflective piece that suggests that even in New York you sometimes need room to breathe.
Nothing is forced, as Anthony Kane’s extended harp solo perfectly mirrors the feel of the song, as the band builds up the tension behind him. There’s a brief pause before Jim’s gently stabbed organ notes draws us further into a slow-blues that bubbles under, simmers and is finally brought to boiling point before being subsumed by the bells.
The mood changes again on the self explanatory titled ‘Lost In Thoughts’, a cool blues with warm notes, anchored by a crisp percussion and fully realized by intricate band interplay. It subtly builds as Zunis’s guitar line fleetingly explores a Zappa melody line before being quietly swept away into the fade by what sounds like distant waves.
Given the title, ‘Day Dreaming’ is surprisingly tougher – all baritone, edgy, razor sharp guitar and cymbal work – before Kane’s harp solo ignites a groove built from the ground up. It invites the listener to crank the volume up and rejoice in the light and shade of the band’s playing, as they rise again with punchy horns, and a defining solo from Zach.
‘Happy Hour’ is the nearest they get to a potential single, with echoes of ‘Groovin With Mr. Bloe’, while the laid back intro to ‘Unwind’ echoes, simmers and then sparkles, as it builds towards a climactic resolution, and by the sound of it, a satisfying drink.
The heavy-duty title track shuffle blows any remaining cobwebs, as the band takes off with a suitable closing message: “Ladies & gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We want to thank you for flying Big Apple Blues and we know you’ve enjoyed this flight.”
Hell yeah, let’s do it all over again. *****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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