The James Cotton Blues Band,
35th Anniversary Jam
(Telarc, 2002)

We've all purchased our share of greatest hits material throughout the many years of building a music collection. Every artist at some point, will release an album of popular tunes from previously recorded material, even throwing in a newly penned track or two. The usual marketing claims the album to be a collection of the artist's finest work; the producers typically just toss together songs that survived well on the charts and have defined the artist's career. The focus seems centered around the songs instead of the album as a whole.

Every so often, there comes a greatest hits album that totally breaks away from the norm -- it's the cream that rises to the top, delivering a higher quality of production, placing greater concentration on creativity that goes far beyond the standard fare. One such recording is the latest release by the master of blues harp, James Cotton. The album, 35th Anniversary Jam by the James Cotton Blues Band, is so much more than a greatest hits release. This album is a 12-track tribute to the greatest blues harp player of all-time, saluting the man, his band and the legacy of his lifetime's work.

35th Anniversary Jam is a musical summary of Cotton's material. Most of all, this album is a gigantic celebration, highlighting almost five decades worth of classic blues contributions. Make no mistake, this is a party album that's loaded with some smokin' blues jam tracks. Bringing together the blues of both past and present, Cotton easily ties together the rich history of his musical journey.

Each of the artists who contributed to the album can be heard giving an energetic and enthusiastic performance. Kudos go out to producer Randy Labbe for bringing out the very best from Cotton's band and the dozen blues superstars who eagerly participated. Albums with too many artists tend fall flat, with maybe one or two tracks are worth mentioning. 35th Anniversary Jam isn't one of those albums; each track has an individual flavor that blends perfectly with the rest, showcasing some incredible talent.

A lengthy career unfortunately paid a toll on Cotton's voice. But the artists who made vocal contributions here don't steer the spotlight away from the star being celebrated.

35th Anniversary Jam is loaded with hard drivin', high voltage blues that blast off right from the opening track, "Don't Start Me Talking." Cotton shines with his fiery harp work on this rockin' tribute to the Sonny Boy Williamson's classic, as Kenny Neals provides gravelly vocals. Next is "The Creeper," a fast-paced instrumental that will surely have you up on the dance floor. There's some great work on the ivories by David Maxwell, and Cotton really smokes on the harp. Listen to his train engine effect, with a touch of "Jingle Bells" thrown in. Koko Taylor provides a sassy performance of "I've Got A Feeling."

One of my favorites is "Cotton Crop Blues," on which Lucky Peterson delivers some gutsy vocals inspiring Cotton's harp performance to an even higher level. Shemekia Copeland delivers a powerful performance on "How Long Can a Fool Go Wrong?" Cotton pulls out all the stops on this one. You can envision these two performing on stage together like they've been at this for years. "Rocket 88" is a great foot-stomping number, and Sly Johnson really takes charge on vocals.

One of the best tracks on the album is "Blues In My Sleep." Cotton absolutely pours it on here. G.E. Smith is certainly one of the greatest blues guitarists around, most definitely over-looked, and as talented as they come. Maxwell also shines here on keyboard. The final track, "Blues for the Hook," is an awesome number dedicated to the late, great John Lee Hooker. Both Cotton and Vaughan delivered an unforgettable performance that's passionately played. Maria Muldaur, Tab Benoit, Ronnie Hawkins and Kim Wilson also add greatly to the album with some memorable performances.

After giving 35th Anniversary Jam a listen, you will see that James Cotton has no intention of slowing down. This master harpist has the energy of a man half his age and talent that goes far beyond his years. As a young boy, Cotton studied his craft with Sonny Boy Williamson, who took him under his wing. In 1954, Cotton got the nod and played harp for Muddy Waters for 12 years. Finally, in 1966, Cotton decided to strike out on his own and formed the James Cotton Blues Band. After numerous recordings, concert, festivals and a Grammy Award, he has earned his legendary status as a giant of the blues. Recording some of the best blues classics, Cotton continues to perform the music he loves, actively keeping it alive for generations to come. This latest album is a lively celebration of Cotton's craft. This album really cooks, a blues jam you'll want to listen to again and again. Join the party -- this is one album you'll be glad to make part of your collection.

[ by Pamela L. Dow ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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