various artists,
Keep It Rollin': The
Blues Piano Collection

(Rounder, 2001)

A new entry in the "Rounder Heritage" series, Keep It Rollin' delivers 17 tracks of raucous, joyous and intense blues piano, showcasing a wide variety of styles and generations. The emphasis is on New Orleans, from where most of the musicians hail, but you'll find something for every pianistic taste here.

The CD starts with one of the younger generation, Willie Tee's "In the Beginning." It rolls, all right, but it's also smart and sophisticated, with some complex chord and key changes. Tee's later "On the Q-Tee" is equally impressive. Eddie Bo is represented by a highly rhythmic "Hard Times" and an energetic R&B-styled "I'm Through Dealing." Art Neville of the Neville Brothers plays "My Children," which provides a jazzy, lower-key contrast to much of the disc's fireworks. It's a welcome change of mood.

The most impressive of the relative youngsters, however, is Davell Crawford, whose "A Closer Walk With Thee/Amazing Grace" is literally awe-inspiring, even more so when you realize the track was cut when he was 19 (he's 25 now). It's swinging and majestic at once, a synthesis of several styles into one that's very much his own. At the end, the piano sounds like an entire orchestra, and you can't help but wonder just how many extra hands Crawford has. His "Keep It Rollin'" is an original that never stops for breath, and shows the versatility of this young lion.

The older generation of bluesmen (some, sadly, no longer with us) are also well represented. Charles Brown is heard in a 1999 recording that proves he had lost none of his titanic talents. His playing is impeccable, his singing a delight, and the song funny as hell. Brown moves skillfully from comedy to tragedy with "Black Night," in which his voice becomes dark, haunting and sepulchral. This is certainly the bluest of all these blues. The third Brown track, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," is just as moving in a different way. Though Brown's early work is a constant pleasure, these later offerings have a depth and resonance that is unique in the world of the blues.

Another old-timer, Tuts Washington, gives us "Arkansas Blues" in a style that you usually hear on scratchy 78 transfers, so it's a pleasure to hear it in fresh 1983 vintage recordings, made just before Washington's death. He also plays a dandy "Yancey Special," in which the rhythms take some tricky turns that might bust the fingers of lesser players. Booker T. Laury plays some classic boogie in "Booker's Boogie," with a great ascending run that's all over the keyboard. Add to it a great blues shouter voice, and you've got one amazing track. That voice howls magnificently on Laury's "Early in the Morning."

Another old-timer, James Booker, offers up "All Around the World," with those great lines, "If I don't love ya, baby / Grits ain't groceries and eggs ain't poultry ... and Mona Lisa was a man." Booker also plays "Hound Dog" in a style predictably closer to Big Mama Thornton than to Elvis. His chops are in full view here, and it's jaw-dropping stuff. Booker provides the CD's final track, "Amen," richly atmospheric and full of feeling, a fitting amen indeed to this gathering of blues piano titans.

It's incredible how many emotions can be expressed by a genre whose title only suggests one -- the blues. Here you'll find joy, pain, love, loss, the sacred and the profane all intermingled. You'll also find great majesty in much of this music and a helluva lot of fun. Keep It Rollin' is a great introduction to new fans of blues piano and a perfect souvenir for devotees. Either way, you can't go wrong with this one.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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