James Cotton’s prowess on the harmonica leaves no doubt that the Blues are nowhere near dead. His recordings for Vanguard, made in the late sixties, reflect a fine sense of ensemble performance. Where many virtuosi fall flat when it comes time to share the stage, Cotton shows his understanding of fellow musicians’ contributions. In particular, his interplay with Otis Spann on “Rocket 88” demonstrates Cotton can share the stage with grace.
But Cotton also avoids another pitfall common to incredible musicians…the failure to sing well enough to back up his material. As early as the second track, “The Blues Keep Falling,” Cotton displays a sensitive grasp of the subtlety required for more tender songs, while his handling of the R&B number, “Got to Get You Off My Mind” boasts enough bluster and energy to give a tiresome lover the boot.
His fellow instrumentalists are no slouches, either; the baritone sax on “Coast Blues” provides a shimmering frontispiece for an exquisitely jazzy blues, and the rhythm section sidles through the arrangement like a sun-bathing crocodile. In this regard, one must credit the producer and engineer with restraint and careful sound separation. It would have been so easy to submerge the bass or raise the piano levels, but neither occurs.
The final touch which distinguishes this collection of Cotton’s work lies in the variety in material he has tackled. Many younger bluesmen try to angle for a rockin’ pyrotechnic feel or a seductive and danceable R&B touch, while veterans all too often never budge from their mainstays. Cotton does not take middle road; rather, he takes on tradition and nuance and makes them his own. The Cool Jazz which jazz masters like Miles Davis experimented with kneads like warm dough under Cotton’s supple harp. Bopping dance numbers have a catchy and compelling momentum, but never get swamped by gimmick. The truly slow, swampy blues will break the listener’s heart. This is truly a stellar collection.