Pete Feenstra chatted to Mick Pini and Craig Marshall for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio. First broadcast 29 August 2021.
Bandcamp [Release date 01.07.21]
Mick Pini’s ‘Backtrack’ marks his 55th anniversary in the music business. It’s a career defining contemporary blues compilation album, framed by producer Craig Marshall’s loving attention to sonic detail and his cinematic vision.
There can be few contemporary blues related albums that can confidently lead us on a mellifluous journey from the Jump blues of the opening ‘Jumping Blues’, through the down-home, guitar and piano instrumental imagery of ‘Snowy Wood’, to the closing acoustic instrumental ambience of ‘Wasteland’.
Producer Craig Marshall steers the ship with real authority, digging deep for grooves and shining a light on instrumental virtuosity and polishing up the hooks.
Apart from producing, mixing and mastering the project, he’s also responsible for the 4 outstanding Audio 54 tracks which update Mick Pini’s oeuvre.
Pini is a Peter Green disciple with a subtle vibrato, touch and tone, matched by a warm vocal style. The emphasis is always on restraint, feel and the emotion of a song, though he has plenty in reserve when it comes to soloing over a big groove.
In that regards, he moves from some characteristic languid lines full of feel to shorter more intense phrasing on ‘You Know I Can’ which is closer to Freddie King. But the key to the album as a whole is the path he takes to forge his own style.
With the exception of say Snowy White, it is Pini who carries that torch for Peter Green, while this timely compilation album perfectly marries his own past with the futuristic ambient feel of Audio 54.
For those that don’t already know, Pini was belatedly discovered in the late 80’s by the legendary Mike Vernon, who signed him up for the ‘Wild Man’ Pini album,
He was always his own man, never pandering to the guitar hero school of blues, let alone wasting precious solos on anything that didn’t serve the kernel of a song.
He’s a soulful, melodic player who knows how to use subtle dynamics. He’s also versatile enough to bring telling contrast to his music to keep the listener guessing, or at least quietly smiling at his chosen direction.
He opens with the self explanatory big band workout of ‘Jumping Blues’. His warm expressive vocal sits perfectly in the front of a mix that intuitively captures the balance between Pini’s laid back blues, a vibrant piano fill and some big band bounce.
It’s the perfect start to a career defining compilation album that subtly reveals Pini’s many shades of blues.
The album flows from beginning to end making light of the time span between some of the tracks. This is wholly due to the perfect equilibrium between Craig Marshall’s svelte touch and Pini’s versatility and willingness to experiment.
He might revel in the minor key blues and readily slip into a languid feel, but he’s equally capable of surprising us with sudden stylistic twists and turns, as on the slide-led ‘Blues Is Cheap’.
The latter acts a jolt to the system, as Pini’s gutsy slide slashes are bathed in echo and reverb to give the track an edge, while the horn heavy funky feel of ‘You Know I Can’ is different again.
Mick’s attack cuts through the track with venom, taking over where his vocal leaves off. Marshall adds an unexpected organ link and some baritone sax into the mix. It all makes for an enveloping groove topped by Mick intense soloing, while only a sudden finish robs the track of a proper resolution.
No matter, Pini’s signature guitar style is married to Marshall’s sonic imprint, meaning there’s a unity and consistency of purpose at the heart of the album.
There are also no unnecessary solos, while even the simplest of lyrics are always cloaked in a suitably emotional framework. On the heartfelt ‘Got It Bad’ for example, – on which an opening vocal and guitar ‘call and response’ wracks up the emotion of a relationship song – he sings: “When I woke up this morning, I lost everything I had.” It leads to the pivotal line: “When I woke up this morning the blues was knocking at my door,” both of which are delivered with total feel and conviction making light of what in another context might be regarded as recycled cliché.
A beautiful accompanying piano line lets the track breathe, as every emotional nuance is matched by Pini’s guitar playing, before the number heads for a stinging resolution that evokes exactly what he is feeling, in another example of serving the song.
So it is then, that ‘Backtrack’ unveils Mick Pini’s full arsenal of tones and expressive phrasing over 10 tracks that span Jump blues, big band blues, Latino blues, jazz, funk and ambient excursions, full of gorgeous string bends, subtle dynamics and above all restraint.
The suitably titled ‘Blues For Peter Green’ updates his own style with a haunting opening guitar line that provides a gateway to a noir filled impressionistic piece full of tonal inflections.
Put simply, blues like this can’t be taught. Sure you can learn the notes, but Pini reaches into the beyond and taps into something with universal emotional significance.
The slow burning ‘One Glass Of Water’ mines a similar source, as his guitar playing feels like a slow tide as it gently rolls in to reach its apex and then just as gently recedes to leave its mark in the sand.
The noir filled ‘Shadows’ is a bass-led groove with a haunting piano line and Pini’s close to the mic whispered phrasing. Its a wonderful example of how at his best, the music and lyrics are inextricably linked in a deep groove, which owes so much to Marshall’s grasp of sonic imagery.
Pini completes the jigsaw either side of judicious horn stabs and crisp percussion. It’s so good that you barely notice that his guitar playing is more of a supportive role.
‘Into The Distance’, adds a Latino feel to another Peter Green style instrumental, on which Pini makes every note count with full toned relish, while the mid-tempo ‘Standing In The rain’ would have suited Sherman Robertson, another Mike Vernon protégé.
The guitar/horn combination give the track its heft, while Mick’s emotive vocal adds a poignant feel that reflects the titular hook.
And in an exquisite moment of seamless sequencing, we’re drawn into the atmospheric book-end called ‘Slow Hands’. It’s a jazzy after hour horn arrangement with a fat toned guitar solo and drips with retro cool.
A muted trumpet provides a perfect counterpoint to the finger clicking backing track, as Pini beautifully teased out his notes. Nothing is rushed and the whole thing feels like a painter adding the final touches to a masterpiece.
And it’s that combination of song craft and real emotion generated by fingers on guitar strings that gives Mick Pini’s blues an organic feel, while Craig Marshall adds the sophisticated sonic quality.
It all adds up to something unique, which may be routed in the past, but feels fresh and contemporary enough to suggest that after 55 years of pounding his beat, Mick Pini has hit career high. ****½
Review by Pete Feenstra
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