14 tracks / 53:15
There is just not enough good boogie-woogie music being recorded anymore, and fortunately the drought has ended with Craig Brenner’s first new album since 2009, Live at the Old Mint. He has assembled a collection of blues and boogie-woogie tracks from his live shows that will surely lift your mood!
Craig is one of the best-educated pianists around; after attending college in Florida he moved to the Hoosier State in the mid-1970s to study at the Indiana University School of Music and he never left. Since then, Brenner has studied classical, jazz and boogie-woogie piano with the masters of each genre, and has received multiple grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. He is serious about his craft, and it shows in his performance.
This certainly is a live album, but this is not just a recording of one show at the Old US Mint in New Orleans (and it really is an old mint, in case you were wondering). This CD is actually a collection of 14 songs culled from 5 different performances spanning seven years. Included are 10 songs from two shows at Old US Mint, three more from two shows from Artsgarden in Indianapolis, and a track from a radio show that he and his wife did in 2013. This set avoids being a hodgepodge thanks to the wonderful job of mixing and mastering done by Jacob Belser of Primary Sound Studios in Bloomington, Indiana – for the most part there is a very consistent sound, feel and flow to the music.
Brenner produced this album himself, and it includes six compositions that he wrote as well as a nice collection of songs that could easily be the final exam for a musician that is seeking a doctorate in blues and boogie-woogie piano. One of these is the first song in the set, “I Stepped in Quicksand” written by the legendary jazz and blues pianist, Charles Brown. Craig takes this one on his own, and there is a fun jazz influence on this one that goes well with his thin, yet pleasant, tenor vocals. The piano sounds clear on this one and there is only a hint of hiss and sibilance, which is to be expected on a live recording of this type.
From there he heads into one of his own compositions, “To Boogie or Not to Boogie,” one of the eight songs on this disc that he recorded with Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on congas. I would never think of combining congas and hard-hitting piano music, but it works on this straight-up boogie-woogie tune, probably because of the talent behind those drums. Roberts is a Crescent City native who turned his percussion work into a career that included performing and recording with heavyweight artists that include Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, The Meters, Snooks Eaglin, Gatemouth Brown, Willie Tee and Dr. John.
The covers are all super-cool! They include gems like “Train Blues”, a faithful rework of Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” which has a glorious saloon piano sound. Or Brenner’s version of Pinetop Smith’s 1928 seminal hit “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” his joyous hammering of Professor Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby,” and the familiar sounds of Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train.” But the standout of these has to be “Mess Around,” a song written by Atlantic Records president and founder Ahmet Ertegun which was one of Ray Charles’ first hits in 1953. The audience really gets into this song and claps along as Craig hoots the vocals and Roberts keep the beat with his congas. This must be something to see live, and of course everyone can commiserate that they don’t want their little girl to mess around.
One of the more fun tunes is Brenner’s original “Crawdad Shuffle” that he performed with his significant other, Lori, at the Indiana University Radio-Television Center in Bloomington in 2013. This instrumental features Mrs. Brenner on a rubboard which is placed far forward in the mix, and Craig almost takes a supporting role to its hypnotic scrapings. The rubboard and congas are not ordinarily leading instruments, and it is fascinating that Brenner can pair up with these percussion instruments and allow them to shine.
The tunes on this CD go by quickly, and before you know it the final track, “Carolina Shout,” will be coming through your speakers (or headphones). Recorded at Artsgarden in 2011, this James P. Johnson song from 1921 has no vocals or accompaniment, just Craig showing incredible timing on what has to be one of the most difficult songs to play correctly. This ragtime song has some jazz influence with a tremendous dynamic range and rhythms that are as tricky as they come. Craig totally nails it, and it is the perfect way to close out the set.
Live at the Old Mint is a good effort from Craig Brenner and a fine showcase of his piano and songwriting skills. If you are not a fan of boogie-woogie, do not let this one scare you off. There is still plenty of blues, ragtime and even jazz to be found on this disc, and you will certainly find something that you like!