"old-school perfect..the interplay is wonderful."
--Big Road Blues
"For fans of Chicago Blues, acquiring this CD should be a priority before sleep! "
-- Blues Blast Magazine
"All in all, Four Aces And A Harp garners deservedly high marks. With a gathering of blues talent like this, it would have been easy to wind up with a project that was overly busy with too many lengthy solos, but Harper’s production is old-school perfect."
-- Blindman's Blues Forum
Switzerland is far away from the birthplace of the blues, but harmonica ace Swississippi Chris Harper's resonant, ringing solos and sound contain plenty of Delta edge and Chicago soul. That's because Harper,
who's also Swississippi Records' CEO and executive producer, caught the
blues fever at an early age and has spent his entire musical life
making certain his playing never abandons the gritty, resounding
qualities of those whose work attracted him when listening to records
owned by his father.
"There was something really magical in the way people like Sonny Boy
Williamson (II) and Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton played
the harmonica," Harper recalls. "They could bend and twist notes, play
these incredible tones, do so many things on the harmonica, make it
sound so big and yet also very much like the human voice, and as a boy
it was fascinating. I sure couldn't play that way at first, and it took
me a long, long time, but I was immediately drawn to the instrument by
hearing what they could do. I was determined to one day really play the
blues and add my own contribution to this great music."
Harper spent a lot of his teen years playing bass rather than
harmonica, and did his fair share of rock and jazz gigs along with
blues dates. Then came a lengthy stint in the '80s and '90s doing
something totally different from music. Harper formed and nurtured an
events business into the biggest of its type in Switzerland and one of
the world's most successful. Indeed, Harper credits those years with
generating a desire to play because he really didn't have much time to
either practice or perform. "But I think the hunger was always there
anyway," Harper recalls. "I always knew that at some point I wanted to
be a fulltime blues musician. I just wasn't sure when that might
Chris Harper came back to both the blues and the harmonica in early
2001. That's when he teamed with Chicago bassist Aron Burton a
freewheeling live CD that established his comfort levels with playing
demanding blues and accompanying a topflight musician.
In addition, Harper's proficiency was sharpened through the assistance
of another master harmonica player Sugar Blue. It was Blue who helped
him master the tongue block approach to the instrument, a style that
was the signature of Big Walter Horton, the person who taught Blue the
method. "That was a revelation, working with Sugar Blue," Harper
recalls. "I learned so much about dynamics, range, breathing,
everything in connection with the harmonica and how to play real tricky
licks and hit high and low notes. Sugar Blue's one of the great modern
harmonica players and he was an excellent teacher."
Since moving permanently to Chicago, Harper did the obligatory session
and fill-in dates before entering into a venture with longtime
musician/producer Dave Katzman. The duo wanted a venture that could
both celebrate the heritage and accomplishments of the great surviving
blues veterans, but would also release contemporary material that could
attract newer fans and also reflect the technological advances in
recording and production that are now part of the sonic landscape.
Harper's certainly done that with his participation in "Four Aces And A
Harp," a session that will take its place alongside other epic blues
summit meetings like Muddy Waters' Fathers and Sons or Albert King's
"Live At Montreaux" that included guest stints from Rory Gallagher and
Louisiana Red. Harper's companions for the occasion are two supreme
guitarists/vocalists in Jimmy Burns and John Primer, plus legendary
drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and bassist Robert Stroger. The musical
menu also is nicely balanced between historic and modern, electric and
acoustic, familiar and obscure, with an couple of originals included to
provide listeners with a view of Harper's own blues portfolio.
"The whole thing with this session was to pay homage to the greats, yet
also make it very much have a current, fresh sound," Harper adds. "All
the guys that we had know all the styles, and they're comfortable with
them. I guess maybe the toughest thing was decided what to play because
they can all play anything and make it great. We tried to find some
songs that don't get played that much and mix in some that we felt were
really a big part of the tradition. I was a little nervous about adding
some of my own songs, but they were very supportive and really made me
feel at ease. They also really did a great job on everything."
The 18-tune release deftly covers the blues spectrum.
"Hand Me Down My Cane" and Lucille Bogan's "Sloppy Drunk," as well as
Robert Brown's "Digging My Potatoes" and Muddy Waters' "Long Distance
Call" are songs that you won't hear all that often either on blues
radio or in performance. Bogan's chronicle of alcohol-induced mischief
and Waters' classic boasting number are done with ease and grace.
Though best known for his relentless rhythmic support, Willie "Big
Eyes" Smith has also done his fair share of harmonica playing over the
years, and his slithering runs make a nice contrast to Harper's
animated smears and slurs on "Born In Arkansas."
John Primer's in prime form doing Sam "Lightin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand,"
depicting both Hopkins' laconic vocal edge and the tune's lyrical
irony. "I Smell Trouble" has along been a shouting triumph for Bobby
"Blue" Bland, and Jimmy Burns' doesn't try to echo Bland's signature
snort or match his volume, but he does bring an equal amount of
flamboyance and intensity to his version. Likewise, while Howlin' Wolf
moaned and wailed with vigor on his rendition of Willie Dixon's "Evil
Is Going On," this updated version has plenty of zip and energy, plus
some growling heroics from the one and only "Tail Dragger."
Harper's writing imprint comes through on "Blues Is My Life," a piece
that nicely blends autobiographical insight with searing playing and
heartfelt vocals, while "You Make My Fly" brings some sentimental
touches into the mix and shows that Harper can smoothly make the
transition from angst to warmth. He also displays his love for the
shimmering, attacking Sonny Boy Williamson approach on two numbers that
were a major part of his menu for years. "Eyesight to the Blind" is
done in locomotive fashion, while Harper's playing is appropriately
whimsical and edgy on "Fattening Frogs For Snakes (Took Me A Long
While he acquits himself very capably on all five of his spotlight
vocals, Harper seems particularly at ease on Brown's "Digging My
Potatoes" and Sleepy John Estes' "Worried Life Blues." On the former
he's loose and a bit laid back, content to let the song's story build
slowly to a solid conclusion. On "Worried Life Blues" he's more
demonstrative, but equally confident, again comfortably developing and
building the tune to a rousing conclusion.
With Swississippi GM and producer Dave Katzman also part of the corps
on six songs (including providing background vocals on Billy Flynn's
"What's Wrong") and also ensuring a marvelous audio/sonic mix, "Four
Aces and a Harp" has the vintage sensibility of classic blues LPs from
the '50s and '60s, but the crystal-clear sound and precise blend of
voices and instruments 21st century listeners demand. It's the ideal
release to launch the label, and also a project that Harper's proud to
have participated in and also be involved with.
"This was a very special release in so many ways," Harper concludes. "I
think it really does represent the best of the old and the new, and was
also a chance for me to work with several of the greats and adjust my
style to what they were doing and also adjust to the different types of
blues we were playing. It was just a wonderful release, and a high
point for me as a musician."