Blues Masters Vol. 4: Harmonica Classics

harmonicaclassics.jpgBlues Masters Vol. 4: Harmonica Classics is a one-hour, 18-track tour through some of the best blues harmonica playing you’ll ever hear. As such, it’s got some inclusions on it that first struck me as weird — Paul Butterfield, the Fabulous Thunderbirds — but I can’t argue with them when I view the compilation as a showcase of the instrument. Nor can I bitch about the inclusion of Charlie Musselwhite, whose music has always kinda sounded like country to me, which I’m sure is partially informed by my knowing that he was the first serious blues harmonica player who happened to be white. You just cannot detract from Musselwhite’s style — he’s one of the geniuses of the instrument, right up there with this Belgian dude I once heard about. His piece here, “Christo Redemptor,” isn’t what I would call his very best, but it’s lovely and deeply bluesy.

Then there’s the slurpy, messy genius of Sonny Boy Williams II (about whom more later… drunken thieving nutjob) , whose “Help Me” beautifully displays SBW’s moodiest style and his amazing, at times creepy charm. Speaking of moody, Junior Wells shows up with “Messin’ With the Kid,” a badass blues piece I have long been in love with.

Most of the other great harp players are here: Jimmy Reed, James Cotton, Little Walter, Slim Harpo, even Howlin’ Wolf, whose approach to the instrument was much like his approach to vocals and rhythms — more is better, ha! ha!!! Wolf may be my favorite vocalist of all time, but his inclusion also displays the range of harp styles played in the blues, from someone like Wolf or Slim Harpo or Sonny Boy Williamson II, whose harp genius came from force of personality and mood, to instrumentalists like Little Walter, James Cotton, Musselwhite and Junior Wells, who are technical masters.

One piece I’d never heard before that makes me totally understand why the Thunderbirds are here — their “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom,” while only just barely blues — and actually, in sound, closer to Tex-Mex or zydeco — belongs here because it’s one of the cleverest uses of harp around.

Other than the Fabulous Thunderbirds piece, there’s not a lot on this collection that I haven’t heard before — but there’s a whole lot to love.

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