Jason Ricci / Joe Krown — City Country City
Gulf Coast Records – 2021
12 tracks; 65 minutes
For the first time since 1993, New Orleans piano and organ master Joe Krown will miss the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year. The reason: he will be on tour in Europe with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. “I really enjoy playing with Kenny and his band. It’s a great gig for me,” says Krown, “but the potential of something like this happening is always there. My friends and fellow musicians refer to this as the ‘Golden Handcuffs’.” Indeed. Joe Krown has been touring with Shepherd since 2017 as full-time organ and piano player, but that’s only scratching the surface of his storied career as a Hammond-endorsed B3 virtuoso and pianist over the course of multiple collaborations, bands, albums and tours. After the passing of the legendary great Allen Toussaint in November 2015, Joe was selected to fill the maestro’s chair, playing piano with Toussaint’s band, and backing up greats like Bonnie Rait, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Cyril Neville and others at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest, Hollywood Bowl, Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center and more. Joe Krown is the embodiment of a “musicians’ musician.”
One of the New Orleans musicians drawn to Krown and his versatility and deep roots was harmonica master Jason Ricci, who first teamed up with Krown for local gigs a few years back, and now performs in New Orleans and tours with him as the Ricci Krown Trio. Ricci is a legend in the blues harmonica world, with multiple “Harmonica Player of the Year” awards from the Blues Foundation, SPAH (Society for Preservation of the Harmonica) and Blues Blast Magazine. His genre-defying harp skills are the epitome of technical virtuosity combined with a solid groove. Though completely at ease with Mississippi and Chicago blues harp standards, he has taken harmonica playing to mind-bending frontiers of innovation. He was chosen to represent the great Paul Butterfield for his induction into to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, and his collaborations are too numerous to list here. His musical generosity is legendary – he has produced literally hundreds of YouTube teaching videos, accessible free to any and all aspiring harmonica players worldwide. He has endlessly toured the U.S. and Europe with his own band, The Bad Kind, and has frequent gigs with Krown, with guitarist J.J. Appleton, with J.P. Soars and Anne Harris, and soon with Chicago Bluesman Lurrie Bell. City Country City is the first album by Ricci and Krown, along with drummer Doug Belote.
From the first organ arpeggio on the title track, we are instantly in church, waiting for the choir to join in. But what comes next is Ricci’s unamplified harp on the “country” phrase, emulating the original by War’s Lee Oskar on the classic album The World is a Ghetto from 1972. Unlike War’s version, though, Ricci switches to amplified harp for the “city” phrases, played on the original by Charles Miller on clarinet and sax. This pattern continues throughout the track, switching from a rhumba in the major pentatonic scale in the country to a bubbling funky, jazzy beat in the city. The country sections remain calm and peaceful, but the interspersed city phrases become increasingly bold and frantic as the cut progresses, highlighting Ricci’s energy and virtuosity. A passing quote from “Eleanor Rigby” near the end of this instrumental gem reminds us of how impersonal city life can be.
Next up is “Down and Dirty,” a swinging shuffle by Krown, with a solid groove maintained by Belote on drums, and a classic but innovative organ solo, with tasteful support from Ricci’s amplified harp.
“Don’t Badger the Witness” features Ricci’s unique singing voice – sometimes pleading, sometimes gritty – in a song based on his experiences with the legal system. His skillful use of acoustic harp hand wahs is contrasted with some dirty amplified harp on the final phrase.
The Joe Sample tune “My Mama Told Me So” features tightly synchronized organ and harp, backed by Belote’s in-the-pocket drumming, building to one of Ricci’s mind-warping harp speed runs near the middle. We are then eased out by Krown’s mellow, jazzy B3 accented by occasional drum breaks. This is followed by the Ricci original “Feel Good Funk,” featuring an irresistible beat and Ricci’s distinctive singing interspersed with a bubbling harp line.
“It Starts With Me” is a sweet Ricci / Krown original instrumental with piano and acoustic harmonica, referencing the artists’ desire to make the world a better place through example.
Ricci’s “Down At The Juke” features a relaxed shuffle beat and Krown’s jazzy organ riffs complementing a Mississippi hill country theme. This is followed by “Upshot,” a punchy Grant Green instrumental with a tight groove and a downtown Saturday night vibe. The walking bass on this number (and others) is actually an organ bass line by Krown.
The slow Charles Brown 1945 classic “Driftin’ Blues” is slowed down further in the Ricci / Krown version, and Brown’s opening piano is replaced by Ricci’s pleading amplified harp. Krown’s B3 solo is understated but evocative, followed by Ricci’s 1st position acoustic harp which demonstrates how closely the harmonica can evoke the human voice.
“The Jimmy Smith Strut,” by Taj Mahal, is a bouncy uplifting shuffle that conjures images of a New Orleans street celebration. Both players swing at their best on this number. “Just A Playboy” switches to a rhumba beat that takes us further down a New Orleans side street and into a local dive, with a piano solo from Krown with an enticing boogie-woogie flavor, followed by some Ricci harp gymnastics that are his unique trademark.
The final cut, Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” is a most unlikely addition to a blues / jazz album, and bears repeated listening to appreciate its nuances. With the Ricci / Krown interpretation, in which the harmonica stands in for the vocal, this instrumental is not a cover tune, but an original.
According to Ricci, City Country City was recorded “mostly live” in 2 days at Jack Miele Productions Studios in New Orleans’ lower garden district. “There might be a couple of harp or organ overdubs,” says Ricci, but the production of such a gem live in 2 days speaks volumes for the mastery of craft and groove these 2 musicians share. As far as is known this is the only album by an amplified diatonic harmonica and organ duo ever recorded. Don’t miss it.