Big Harp George – Wash My Horse In Champagne
Blues Mountain Records BMR CD 02
13 songs – 56 minutes
It took an eternity for Big Harp George to emerge from the shadows to put his prodigious talents on the chromatic harmonica on display for the world to see, but it was definitely worth the wait.
His well-received 2014 release, Chromaticism, a nominee for last year’s Blues Blast Awards for best New Artist Debut Album, clearly demonstrated, he’s a player of the first order. With the release of the equally satisfying, all-original Wash My Horse In Champagne, it’s clear that he wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Now in his early 60s and a longtime law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, George Bisharat developed his talent as a hobby, making his recording debut on one cut of the Otis Grand-Joe Louis Walker album, Guitar Brothers, in 2002. Grand called him back into the studio again in 2006 for his Hipster Blues CD, George’s only other release before exploding out of the blocks as a front man.
In a world where anyone who picks up a harmonica thinks he can play the blues, Big Harp George is a rarity, eschewing the diatonic — with its simple 10-hole, 20 reed set-up – for the chromatic, which uses a button to switch between the double set of reeds that exist for both blow and draw notes, something akin to having an entire piano keyboard in your mouth with the ability to play all keys without changing instruments. His playing style – playing in front of a microphone instead of holding it against the instrument – has more of an acoustic than electric feel.
Like his first release, this album was engineered by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios. Produced by Chris Burns, who doubles on keyboards, it features Raja Kawar on drums with Andersen sharing guitar duties with Little Charlie Baty and bass lines with Kedar Roy. J Hansen adds percussion while Michael Peloquin (sax) and Mike Rinta (trombone) comprise the horn section and Loralee Christensen and several of the musicians provide backing vocals.
While all of the material here was written by George, it comes across with a warm, familiar feel. “Home Stretch” opens the action as it borrows from the Nat King Cole classic, “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” and promises his lady to quit drinking and other vices on the home stretch of his life. “Road Kill” is a call-and-response rocker about being run over by a lover even though the singer saw the car approaching. Andersen’s guitar work is stellar, and the tune has the feel of a number that could have been produced with his regular unit, Rick Estrin And The Nightcats, with whom Baty and Hansen have featured prominently.
The cover tune, “Wash My Horse In Champagne,” is a major change of pace, a minor-key, Latin-flavored complaint about being educated well, but have learned nothing. It features a stunning guitar solo from Baty. The upbeat jump blues “Cool Mistake” swings from the get-go as it describes the joy of stumbling on treasures of one sort or the other. The equine references continue with “never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Next up, “My Bright Future” is a slow blues ballad about the realization that the title is really in the singer’s past.
The horns are in play in concert with the harp for the jazzy “I Ain’t The Judge Of You” before the action slows for “I Wasn’t Ready,” a bluesy ballad with a ‘60s feel about not being ready to say goodbye. It’s dedicated to George’s mother. The theme of remorse in other areas of life continues in the New Orleans-flavored rocker “If Only” before the funky “Light From Darkness” sings praise for inner strength against adversity.
The instrumental “Mojo Waltz” features horns and another nice Baty solo. It precedes the blues “What’s Big?” a lesson dedicated to George’s son that stresses “big” doesn’t involve muscles, it’s more about having a heart of gold. Another swinging instrumental, “Size Matters,” follows before “Justice In My Time,” concludes the set.
The world is full of skilled diatonic players, but chromatic players are a rare commodity, and Big Harp George is a master, lilting over the comb of his instrument with an uncompromising ability to produce big, sweet tone as he runs his progressions, seemingly with no effort. And his lyrics are a treasure throughout. Pick this one up. Available through most major marketers, and strongly recommended.