Jack De Keyzer – Checkmate
Blue Star Records – 2018
13 tracks; 53 minutes
Canadian guitarist Jack De Keyzer has produced some fine discs over the years and this is his thirteenth CD release. Here he plays tribute to Chess Records with a collection of covers recorded in Ontario but with its soul in Chicago, mainly staying close to 2120 South Michigan Avenue with plenty of great songs recorded there by the likes of Otis Rush and Howling Wolf but also stretching across to other iconic bluesmen. There are three each from the songbooks of Otis Rush and Howling Wolf, two from Elmore James and three traditional tunes; of the thirteen tracks here five bear the writing credits of Willie Dixon who was so influential during the prime years at Chess and Cobra Records. Jack handles all vocals and guitar work with Joel Visentin on organ, piano and trombone, Richard Thornton on tenor sax, harmonica and conga, Alan Duffy on bass and Rick Donaldson on drums.
The album opens with a blazing version of “Howling For My Darling” and you can immediately hear how tight the band is. Jack’s vocals and guitar are great and Richard’s sax solo is a standout. The classic riff of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” is present and correct and, to these ears, there seems to be an element of another Chess stalwart, Jody Williams, in Jack’s playing here. We then get a double shot of Elmore James: a fast-paced rhythm underpins “Stranger Blues” and makes it hard to keep still while Jack plays some great licks but does not use slide; the slide comes out for a barnstorming “Talk To Me Baby” and Jack plays it superbly with great tone and feel, keeping all the excitement of the EJ version with fine piano and sax accompaniment. Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” completes a thrilling opening quintet of songs with some fiery guitar over a great band performance with Richard’s brooding sax work at its core.
The middle of the album veers away from the Chess stable for a trio of songs from other sources. “Broke Down Engine Blues” is marked as ‘traditional’ but is usually considered a Blind Willie McTell tune, perhaps less familiar than most of the material here (though it was covered by Dylan on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong); Jack’s version is quite heavy with plenty of tough guitar playing. The next song is perhaps the real oddity of the collection, a delicate cover of “Do Right Woman”, a Chips Moman/Dan Penn song best known from Aretha Franklin’s 1967 version. A dip into the BB King songbook with “Days Of Old” allows the band to play a swinging shuffle on which Jack plays superbly.
We then return to Chess with a run of three Willie Dixon songs, the first two of which will be very familiar both from Howling Wolf’s originals and many subsequent covers: “Evil (Is Going On)” finds Jack using some distortion on his vocals to deliver something akin to Wolf’s style as Joel plays some great stuff on piano; the heavy version of “I Ain’t Superstitious” has some pretty wild guitar that blends some of Freddie King’s tone (think “Going Down”) with Jeff Beck’s cover of the same song on Truth.
The final visit to the Otis Rush catalogue is “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and, after the previous cut, you might be expecting a Zeppelin style guitarfest but Jack springs a surprise by playing a restrained version with some jazzy touches on guitar and excellent sax.
The album concludes with two ‘traditional’ tunes though many will associate them with Robert Johnson. Jack gets his slide out again for “Walking Blues” and, as on “Talk To Me Baby”, it’s another exciting tour de force with lashings of exciting slide work while for “Come On In My Kitchen” Jack switches to resonator in a solo acoustic version (though the 78 ‘crackle’ throughout is a device that has surely outlived its novelty).
Of course there are plenty of covers of these songs around but if you want to hear them well covered this is an album to get! This reviewer certainly enjoyed the songs selected and the interpretations made by Jack and his bandmates.