James Cotton: The 35th Anniversary Jam

James Cotton
The 35th Anniversary Jam

For years, James Cotton has been synonymous with harmonica excellence. His latest release erases any doubt for blues fans about who stands at the head of the increasingly talented corps of harp players. Over three decades ago, Cotton left the Muddy Waters Band to front his own group, leading what was to become one of the longest-running blues bands around. Now he celebrates the original 1967 release of that first self-titled album as the James Cotton Band with a new release. The 35th Anniversary Jam of the James Cotton Blues Band on Telarc Records consists mainly Cotton originals and showcases his massive harmonica skills.

While using an all-star cast to handle the vocals (Cotton’s voice is no longer able to sustain a concert performance level), it is Cotton who maintains the continuity across tracks. And he doesn’t just play but blasts his way through each song with verve and energy. It is Cotton’s remarkable ability to control the music without being the vocalist that reinforces recognition of his skill.

The CD immediately grabs your attention with the first track, “Don’t Start Me to Talking”. With guest blues man Kenny Neal providing the vocals and Cotton’s current band member David Maxwell on piano, the track is contagious. There’s also deep history, if you recall that was Sonny Boy Williamson’s trademark tune, and James Cotton as a 9-year-old boy was Sonny Boy Williamson’s young and determined harmonica protégé.

This is only one of two covers included in the 53-minute, 12-track set. The rest of the base band consists of Mike Williams on rhythm guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Per Hanson on drums providing the backing groove for Cotton and an amazing roster of guest artists.

On “The Creeper”, Cotton blows up the vision of a railroad train, engine steaming, comin’ towards you. Five minutes of this energy is sure to get anyone’s heart pumping. Each song has its own signature being written by a variety of guest vocalists and musicians. Vocalists include the likes of Koko Taylor, Lucky Peterson, and Shemekia Copeland. G.E. Smith, Tab Benoit, and Jimmie Vaughan are sitting in on guitar. Singer Peterson is joined by guitarist Derek O’Brien on “Cotton Crop Blues” and together they push Cotton into some explosive harp playing. Throughout the CD, Cotton will wail out solos that make you glad you’re listening. It takes quite some imagination to even try to figure out just how he does it. Shemekia Copeland turns in a strong confident performance as she continues to grow in the art of blues singing. G.E. displays his strong guitar skills while some of the other guests include Ronnie Hawkins, Syl Johnson, Maria Muldaur, and Kim Wilson.

The CD ends with “Blues for the Hook”, a dedication to the late John Lee Hooker, an instrumental featuring Cotton and Vaughan.

Assembled and recorded together, this is a truly amazingly talented group. But the album also shows that after close to 50 years, James Cotton is not ready to retire. In fact, his sound is still young, fresh, and inventive. If the CD does nothing else, it reminds everyone that James Cotton is still the undisputed Mr. Superharp.