13 songs – 53 minutes
Since Charlie Musselwhite planted roots on the West Coast decades ago, San Francisco has evolved into a hotbed of sensational harmonica players, most notably Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel and the late Norton Buffalo. But as most locals already know, there’s a new reed-bender in town, and he’s ready to make a name for himself on a broader scale.
Born in Mumbai, India, and only working as a musician full-time for the past six years or so, Akarsha “Aki” Kumar is the real deal if you love traditional blues harp with an extra dose of originality. As a teen, he studied keyboards and tabla (Indian drums) before picking up a tremolo harmonica, instrument commonly used in popular Hindi music. Now in his mid-30s, Kumar emigrated to the U.S. in 1996 to study software engineering, settling first in Oklahoma City before transferring to San Jose State University, where he earned a degree that landed him a job in the industry.
Aki’s love for the harmonica eventually lead him to the San Jose School of the Blues, where master instructor Dave Barrett quickly turned him onto to the works of Little Walter Jacobs, George “Harmonica” Smith and James Cotton. Kumar burst onto the West Coast scene in 2009, fronting one of the Bay Area’s favorite bands, Tip Of The Top. He now fronts his own tight ensemble and also does service with Little Jonny And The Giants.
Kumar makes his recording debut on this disc, which was co-produced with Chris “Kid” Andersen at Andersen’s award-winning Greaseland Studios. Joining him for the session is lineup that includes four of the best guitarists in the area: Andersen (who also adds keyboards, tabla and sitar), Rusty Zinn, Little Jonny and Johnny “Cat” Soubrand of the Terry Hanck Band. Blues Music Award nominee June Core and Vance Ehlers contribute drums and bass, while Frankie Ramos sits in on saxophone. Bob Welsh sits in on piano and Kid’s wife Lisa Leuschner Andersen backing vocals.
The end product, which features four originals and nine covers, is a grabber right from the start. A simple low-resister three-note turn-around kicks off Kumar’s straight-ahead version of the Snooky Pryor classic. “Judgement Day” He’s a powerful, stylish vocalist who delivers his lyrics without a hint of accent, and his attack would be well received in the smoky bars of Chicago’s West Side, where the music originated. Kumar puts down the harp and dips into ‘50s rock for a cover of Hank Ballard’s “Hoochie Coochie Coo” next, aided by a driving horn line from Ramos, tasty accents from Soubrand and Zinn on six-string and keyboard work from Welsh.
The Kumar original “Don’t Hold Back” features sexually suggestive lyrics atop a swinging bottom and a solid sax solo as the singer instructs: “Just tell me what’s on your mind/Don’t wait for another time/Don’t hold back.” Aki stretches his chops on an extended harp solo to finish off this instant pleaser. Next up, a trip to the Gulf Coast for a ripping version of Slim Harpo’s “Buzzin’.” It’s an ultra-modern take on the original with Little Jonny coming to the fore for a tasty solo.
The original “Let Me Get Closer” is a simple Chicago-style harmonica-fueled shuffle about falling in love at first glance with a woman uninterested in romance. She just wants to dance. Aki delivers a rock-solid mid-song solo before working his way into the Jimmy Reed standard, “She Don’t Want Me No More,” featuring Andersen on guitar. The song differs dramatically from the Reed version as Aki uses the entire harp instead driving home the theme in high register. He splits the solo with Welsh.
Four more covers follow – a dazzling, completely new version of Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues” complete with sustained work on the reeds, a straight-forward take on Little Walter’s “Blue Baby” with Aki accompanied only by keys, a horn-driven interpretation of Willie Dixon’s “I’ll Get You Too” and a swinging version of Peter Chatman’s “Wish Me Well.” In each case, Kumar makes the song his own.
Little Jonny takes over the vocals for “Freight Train,” billed as an original, but thematically resembling railroad songs of the past. Kumar picks up the chromatic harp and gives a tip of the hat to his hometown in the self-penned “Mumbai Express,” based on the Junior Parker hit, “Mystery Train,” before concluding the set with a legitimate taste of his homeland. “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh,” a popular South Asian song from a ‘60s Hindi movie, gets a total makeover as a blues tune, with Aki delivering the lyrics in his native tongue, aided by Lisa on vocals and Kid on tabla and sitar.
Definitely one of the best new artist new releases of 2014. It’s a little late for Christmas, but pick up a copy of “Don’t Hold Back” today. You deserve it.