Jose Ramirez – Major League Blues
Delmark Records 872
10 songs – 52 minutes
Guitarist Jose Ramirez has lived a charmed life since emigrating from his native Costa Rica to pursue a career in the home of the blues. A finalist in the 2020 International Blues Challenge, he became the first-ever Latin American bluesman to sign with Delmark Records after his debut disc, Here I Come – which was produced by Anson Funderburgh, struck a positive chord with fans and reviewers alike around the world.
Still only 34 years old, his ascendency continues with this CD, a pristine collection of traditional and contemporary blues that includes backing from 90-year-old Bob Stroger, one of the most revered bassists of his generation, and guitarist Jimmy Johnson in some of his final recordings prior to his passing earlier this year at age 93. As Delmark notes in the liner notes, Jimmy was approvingly moved to tears the first time he heard Jose play.
Heavily influenced by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and others, Ramirez grew up in his parents’ bar in San Jose, a city where salsa and reggae dominate. But his parents adored Ray Charles, Motown and Stax, and played the music constantly at work when Jose was a child. He received a guitar from his grandfather at Christmas in 1999, but his dad insisted that, if he truly wanted to learn the instrument, he had to listen to recordings of blues masters and absorb the feel of what they were doing into his DNA.
Ramirez took the advice to heart, and it’s paid off in spades. Three days after emigrating to Florida as a young adult, he landed the guitar gig in regional favorite Lauren Mitchell’s band, eventually becoming her band leader. He’s split his time between Tampa Bay and the Nation’s Capital ever since, representing the D.C. Blues Society in the IBCs, where he was runner up to the Canadian Horojo Trio, a group composed seasoned blues veterans.
This disc was captured in two sessions recorded about a year apart. The first four tracks were laid down at Riverside Studio in Chicago in August 2021 with backing from The Delmark All-Star Band — Stroger, Johnson, guitarist Billy Flynn, keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy and drummer Willie “The Touch” Hayes –definitely one of the most polished veteran units the Windy City had to offer.
The six closers feature Ramirez’s touring unit — keyboard player Andre Reyes Jr., drummer/bassist Antonio Reyes, bassist Kenny Watson Jr., percussionist Evan Hoffman and vocalist Shelly Bonet, who co-wrote three of the eight originals in the 10-tune set – and were recorded at Purple Ridge Studio in Canton, N.C., in September 2020.
The original title number, “Major League Blues,” kicks off the action with Johnson on lead for a brief introduction before Jose launches into autobiographical lyrics that express his appreciation for all of the blessings he’s received through the music and his gratitude for being in the place he is today. It’s a steady rocking shuffle with stop-time feel that lists many of his childhood guitar heroes and features a stellar mid-tune solo from Jimmy, too, his sole appearance in the set.
Ramirez’s pleasant voice – he sings in perfectly unaccented English — almost breaks with emotion in the unhurried ballad, “I Saw It Coming,” as he describes the pain of a broken relationship, and Purifoy takes listeners to church on the Hammond B3 organ as Jose realizes it’s time to move on. The mood brightens and pace quickens from the opening bars of the Taylor standard, “Bad Boy,” and features fantastic fretwork from Flynn before yielding to another emotional reading of Magic Sam’s familiar “My Love Is Your Love.”
The all-original Canton recordings open with “Whatever She Wants,” an unhurried, searing contemporary blues that professes love for a woman “who knows exactly how to make my body sing” – so much so that he’s yielded all control to her. His adoration of the blues comes to the fore in the tribute, “Here in the Delta,” a slow-as-molasses number imbued with images of the mighty Mississippi and the lowlands, and the action heats up instantly in the sexually charged “Forbidden Funk,” which gives Jose space to work out on the strings.
The flavor of Ramirez’s homeland fuels “Are We Really Different,” a universal complaint about the need for understanding that can apply to relationships, race and more. It gives way to “Gotta Let You Go,” another view of the desire for romantic separation, a message that reverses course in the closer, “After All This Time,” which insists the lovers should stay together to overcome what’s transpired in the past.
Like the title infers, this truly is Major League Blues, and Jose Ramirez is a star ascendant. Run, don’t walk, to pick up this one. It’s that good!