Chris Nole – Piano Blues
12 songs, 40 minutes
The piano is equally as important to the Blues as the ubiquitous guitar. The urbane City Mouse cousin to the rustic Country Mouse Delta slide guitar, the piano’s ability to orchestrate and fill a room with joy, catharsis and bad-ass stomping has defined musically important cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. The piano Blues has been defined over the years by often unassuming hard working journeymen and journeywomen, rarely reaching the elite super stardom that their guitar playing counterparts reach. From Scott Joplin to Martha Davis to Sunnyland Slim to Otis Span; from WC Handy to Professor Longhair to Fats Domino to Dr. John; from Little Brother Montgomery to Katie Webster to Marcia Ball to Bruce Katz.
One of the hard working journeymen is Chris Nole. A monster player with a resume that includes Delbert McClinton, John Denver and Emmylou Harris, Nole has been consistently pumping out meaningful music from his Nashville home base for over 4 decades. Chris’ newest homage to the 88 keys is Piano Blues and the simple title could not be more descriptive. Nole works through virtually every type of key tickling Blues form there is. 12 “original” tracks are exercises in form more than stand alone compositions. They move effortlessly through classic stride (“Bird Doggin””), boogie woogie (“J-Bar Boogie), NOLA drag (“It Was What It Was,” “Phat Boy Blues” and “Farewell Sweet Rosie”), menacing Chicago stomp (“C Street Shuffle”) Helena/early Chicago shuffle (“Pine Barren Boogie”) , soulful slow Blues (“Past Midnight” and “Feelin’ Blue”), solo ragtime breakdown (“Low Brow Blues”), robust Gospel balladry (“The Dew Drop Blues”) and jazzy Latin romance (“Blue for You”). But the attention to repertory detail is hardly a detraction. The 12 performances sparkle with diverse tempo and feel and are played with such fluidity, dexterity and emotion that as a whole Piano Blues is a complete work of fully original art.
The musicians are: Chris Nole – piano, organ, accordion; Randy Leago – tenor and baritone saxophones; Pat Bergeson – harmonica; Jon Conley – guitar; T.R. Ilian – bass; Chris Brown – drums
Let’s highlight a few tracks:
The slow “Stormy Monday” swing of “Past Midnight” is a master class in mood and expressiveness. Nole seems to stop time making every 4 beat measure burst with flurries of notes, each bar it’s own micro-statement within the whole. The use of classic replacement and passing chords injects movement and melody into the 12 bar progression and propels this impossibly slow tempoed performance ever forward with urgency and drama.
The sole solo piano work out “Low Brow Blues” forgoes strict time signature adherence to allow for idiosyncratic passages to flow naturally and at their own pace. Part Otis Spann’s duo explorations with Robert Lockwood and part Keith Jarret’s solo Koln meditations, “Low Brow Blues,” as the title hints, stays committed to the Blues scales and conventions while pushing the boundary of song and form.
Nole has an obvious affection for the music of New Orleans. Three of the compositions on this album are from the Crescent City tradition, most effecting is “Phat Boy Blues.” This lusty swaggering take on the classic Fats Domino style is taken at just below medium-slow giving space for lots of blustery bravado. With big wide toned horns and rolling left hand bass key playing, Nole and company slowly bull their way through a China shop.
Chris Nole is a master musician. A technician who has had a fruitful in-demand career. Even though Piano Blues is consistently tasteful and perfectly executed with self-control and precision, Nole is really showing off on this album. He is showing us how deep his knowledge is and how well he can play absolutely any kind of piano Blues music you can imagine. Piano Blues is not only a master clinic in technical skill, it is a moving testament to Nole’s talent and unbound artistry.