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Otis Spann

Otis Spann: Best of the Vanguard Years

(Vanguard)

Unlike his label-mate and sometime collaborator, James Cotton, Otis Spann’s output does not stretch evenly into his later years. That may not be a fair comment, given his untiley death of cancer, but his work on this collection shows a narrow range of style and tempo. Indeed, his material suggests too much of a good thing. Hdione thing…a rollicking Chicago update of the barrel-house piano style first heard in Vaudeville. That said, when he’s good, he’s really something. His supple and energetic handling of the ivories suggest the best of Eubie Blake and Little Richard. Indeed, there is the prodigious and astounding control evident in Art Tatum’s work. Like Sonny Boy Williamson’s (the second, Rice Miller), Spann’s voice conveys enough crochety impatience with being downtrodden and low on money or heartsick. For Spann, it quickly becomes obvious, the Blues may be a living, even a triumphant form of music, but it is neither a romantic nor an ideal way to live.


The collection’s limitations lie in its tendency to string together one generic Chicago blues song after another. If songs like “Home to Mississippi” and “S.P BLues” were the best he could muster, why did Vanguard give him a contract? the answer, of course, has more to do with his affiliations and their marketing logic. After all, Spann logged many hours playing not only with Cotton, but legends like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Willie Dixon. Spotting an opportunity to sell to cross-over young white audiences, Vanguard would not be the first to offer a contract in the interests of extending a working formula. Whether or not they got more than they bargained for is arguable, but what Spann lacked in versatility, he more than made up for with a theatrical style of playing and his grasp of the privileged role the piano plays in the Blues. Melody, rhythm, and a sophisticated sense of harmony battle it out in songs like “You Said You’d Be on Time.” and “Spann’s Stomp.”


Lamentably, the material really suffers most in Spann’s more pious moments; despite the liner notes’ praise for Spann’s refusal to preach, the gospel numbers, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “My God” sound saccharine. His origins in his father’s church notwithstanding, Spann’s own essays at religious music leave one feeling as if too much cotton candy had gone down the wrong way. A much more pleasing memory to leave this recording with would be the bouncy “Crying Time;” characterized by a sinewy bass and an silly hammond organ workout, the number is short and sweet.

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