Ogden Records ORCD 380
14 songs – 58 minutes
Shoji Naito probably isn’t a name most blues lovers recognize, but he’s made quite a name for himself behind the scenes since emigrating to the U.S. in 1996 to study guitar and bass at Chicago’s Columbia College.
A gifted harmonica player, too, he started playing the blues professionally at age 16 at home in Toyota, Japan, and quickly started making the rounds of some of the best clubs in the Windy City. Through his college years, he sat in with John Primer, Carey Bell, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Lurrie Bell and others.
His big break came 12 years ago, when guitarist Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater invited him to join his band, a relationship that continues today. In addition, Naito performs regularly with Morry Shocat & The Special 20s. As a duo, he and Sochat won the 2013 Chicago Blues Challenge.
In addition, since 1997, he’s worked with legendary harmonica instructor and builder Joe Filisko at the Old Town School Of Folk Music, laying down most of the practice tracks that Filisko uses in his lessons. And he also markets play-along tracks for harp players through his website.
New Cool Old School is Naito’s debut as a front man after appearing on one of Shocat’s releases and producing albums for him and Clearwater. He’s featured on guitar and harp throughout, but hands over the vocals to others on all but one tune. He’s backed by a who’s who of Chicago blues artists, including Clearwater, Billy Flynn, Gerry Hundt, Harlan Terson, Cicero Adams and Marty Binder on guitar, bass and mandolin; Rie “Lee” Kanehira, Erwin Helfer and Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on keyboards; Marty Binder, Mark Fornek and Flynn on drums. Willie Buck, Katherine Davis, Milwaukee Slim and Clearwater handle most of the vocals, and Grant Kessler sits in on harp on the final cut.
All but two of the cuts here are covers. Everything you’ll hear here was recorded in one take without overdubs and retains the feel you’d experience in an intimate bar during the time most of the authors’ heyday.
Naito’s on harp with Buck handling the vocals for a rousing version of Little Walter’s “I Got To Go” and a traditional take on Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee” to start the set before Clearwater takes the mike for versions of the Jimmy Reed standards “Big Boss Man” and “I’ll Change My Style.” His style on the reeds is classic Chicago old-school, active, but never intrusive. He’s no copycat, preferring to add his own touches rather than playing like his predecessors note for note. He picks up the six-string for an instrumental cover of Guitar Gable’s “Congo Mombo.” His guitar stylings are crisp and feature single-note runs. On both instruments, he’s slightly behind the beat, driving the rhythm forward.
Davis steps to the mike for Alberta Hunter’s “I Got Myself a Workin’ Man” and her own “Bopp’n And Jumpin The Blues” with Naito on guitar before Milwaukee Slim and Clearwater take turns covering Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” and Big Walter’s “Last Night.” Buck’s back to deliver the Willie Dixon/Muddy original “I’m Ready,” and Eddy takes on Jimmy Rogers’ “Walking By Myself” before Shoji’s talents on the strings are on full display for a version of sax player Sonny Thompson’s “Blues For The Night Owl,” retitled “Sad Night Owl.” Naito and Ariyo trade licks on acoustic harp and piano for their original, “Same Old S’cool,” before Shoji abandons his instruments to sing a version of Rogers’ “Money, Marbles And Chalk” to conclude the set.
Although there’s relatively nothing new or groundbreaking here, New Cool Old School is one sensational album if your tastes run to traditional Chicago blues like mine do. Available through most major retailers, it’s going on my short list as one of the best CDs I’ve heard this year.