Big Harp George – Living in the City
Blue Mountain Records BMR 04
13 songs – 64 minutes
Based out of San Francisco and one of the best educated bluesmen in the world, Big Harp George serves up one of the most interesting albums you’ll hear this or any year with Living in the City, the fourth release in his catalog since making his debut as a recording artist at age 59 just six short years ago.
A PhD in anthropology and a lawyer who graduated from both Georgetown University and University of California-Berkeley and an authority on Arab-Israeli legal and social issues, he didn’t start playing professionally until retiring from a career that included time as a public defender and private-practice defense lawyer before a lengthy stint as a professor at UC-Hastings School of Law.
A witty man and a sharp dresser who was born George Bisharat in Topeka, Kan., he picked up a harp for the first time at age 12 and hasn’t put it down since, drawing inspiration from the work of chromatic masters George “Harmonica” Smith, Paul DeLay and William Clarke. Despite his late entry into the blues world, he quickly established himself as both a stellar chromatic player as well as an insightful, clever songwriter and a pleasant singer to boot. His debut CD, Chromaticism, earned him multiple nominations for new artist of the year.
A follow-up to Wash My Horse in Champagne in 2016 and Uptown Cool in 2018, this album – like the others — definitely isn’t your standard old-school one-four-five blues. A self-penned, hour-long set, it weaves and intricate tapestry of modern blued that’s primarily infused with West Coast jump and swing, but contains elements borrowed from Latin America and the Middle East, too. And the instrumentation is just as unusual.
Recorded at Kid Andersen’s award-winning Greaseland Studios, Living in the City features a moveable feast of musicians. It’s dedicated to the late Little Charley Baty whose guitar talent shines on six cuts in some of his final recordings, sharing six-string duties with Andersen who contributes bass, too. It was produced by Chris Burns who plays keyboards throughout
The extensive lineup also includes Ben Torres (sax and flute), Michael Peloquin (sax), Mike Rinta (trombone), Carlos Reyes (Paraguayan harp and violin), Firas Zreik (zither/qanun) and Doug Rowan (baritone sax). June Core holds down drums throughout augmented by Derrick “D’Mar” Martin and Loay Dhbour, who plays iique, an Arabic percussion instrument. Joe Kyle is the bassist on six tracks, and Amal Murkus is featured on vocals for one cut. Backing vocals are delivered by Lisa Leuschner Andersen, Loralee Christensen and the Sons of the Soul Revivers (brothers James, Dwayne and Walter Morgan).
Constructed atop a funky backbeat from Core, “Build Myself an App” is a horn-fueled pleaser written after George checked his online sales revenue and decided to laugh instead of cry while Andersen’s guitar runs heat up “Smoking Tires” before George launches into a medium-paced shuffle that announces his intent to flee from a petite, but evil lady. Bisharat’s harp talent comes to the fore on “Living in the City,” which swings from the jump and features Little Charley at his jazzy best.
The music changes dramatically with the bluesy, samba-infused “Heading Out to Itaipu,” George’s tip-of-the-hat paean to a working-class beach in Niteroi, Brazil, before confronting the medical world with “Copayment,” a stop-time rocker about excessive charges for treatment, while “Try Nice?” glides and slides as it delivers an upbeat message to the difficult people who’ve tried everything else while attempting to survive.
Inspired by Count Basie, the instrumental, “Bayside Bounce,” gives George a chance to work out on the reeds before he offers up important legal advice to anyone involved in a court case: “Don’t Talk!” Simply stated, everything that comes out of your mouth can and will be used against you. “First Class Muck Up,” a tune with built-in train wrecks, provides a humorous breaks before “Chew Before You Swallow” picks up the previous message about thinking before you speak.
George gets stone serious in the final three songs of the set. The ballad, “Enrique,” describes a Central American émigré facing deportation despite living an honorable life, raising a good family and toiling long hours to support them while sending money home to his mother, too. “Pusher in a White Coat,” meanwhile, blasts doctors who create addicts and make a fortune from pharmaceutical companies by taking kickbacks by prescribing opioids. The final cut, “Meet Me at the Fence,” features Palestinian superstar Murkus and her son Firas as it offers up a plea for freedom and dignity in their homeland with a tango beat and Middle Eastern accents.
Available through CDBaby, Amazon, Apple and BlueBeat Music, Living in the City delivers a sonic treasure for anyone who appreciates deep thoughts and blues without borders. Pick it up today. You won’t be disappointed!