Sugar Blue – Colors | Album Review

Sugar Blue – Colors

Beeble Music BB805

11 songs – 42 minutes

Harmonica genius Sugar Blue has been spreading his genius internationally for decades, but never as completely as he does on this dazzling disc, which was recorded on four continents and features a roster chockful of world-renown talents.

The son of a dancer at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, he’s been constantly expanding his musical sensibilities since childhood, surrounded by Billie Holiday and dozens of other talents who crossed that stage and spent time in his home. A two-time Grammy winner, he was still a teenager when he recorded his first tracks for Victoria Spivey’s self-named label. And his early sessions work graced albums by Johnny Shines, Louisiana Red and Roosevelt Sykes.

Once the top street musician in New York, he recorded relocated to Paris at the suggestion of Memphis Slim, attained international prominence himself after recording “Miss You” and three albums with the Rolling Stones before migrating to the Windy City, where he established himself as a band leader and as a member of Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues Allstars.

Never content to stay in one place for too long, Blue rotated between the U.S. and Italy for a while, but now makes his home in Shanghai, China, where this album – which fuses blues, jazz, funk and international overtones – was conceived. It was recorded at One Music Dream in Shanghai, Rax Trax in Chicago, Pop Life in Milan, Italy, and Howard Audio in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The core element of his band includes longtime bandmate Rico McFarland on drums and wife/arranger Ilaria Lantieri along with the legendary Johnny B. Gayden (Son Seals, Lou Rawls and Johnny Winter) and Joewaun Scott on bass with Brady Williams and Yan Bodhoo sharing time on drums. Damiano Della Torre, another longtime bandmate, handles keyboards.

Special guests include Afrika Riz — a choir arranged by Mpendulo Sipho Mhlanga, Chinese sheng master Ling Bo and guitarists Nick Tremulis and Rick Barnes, who appear on one cut each. And adding to the mix are guitarists Max DeBernardi, Sergio Montaleni, Marco Guarnerio and Moto Makino, Washboard Chaz and background vocalist Jennifer Hall.

A collection of 10 originals — primarily co-written with several bandmates — and one cover, the album opens with a hypnotic rapid-fire Bo Diddley beat for “And the Devil Too,” a pyrotechnic backhanded thank you to a former love with wayward ways who’s apparently parted company in the most unpleasant manner. Sugar bids her farewell with a customary whirlwind run on the reeds that made him instantaneously recognizable instrumentalists on the planet, and his vocals are stronger than ever.

The aural shift is dramatic for “Bass Reeves,” which opens with the sound of a steam locomotive before sweetly paying tribute to a real-life American hero, a former slave who became the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, spoke several Indian languages and brought peace while embracing the indigenous people as his own. The honeyed tones continue in the ballad “We’ll Be Allright,” featuring Afrika Riz, which encapsulates multiple analogies to the stoppage of time as it paints a brighter picture for the future.

Up next, Blue updates John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Day Tripper,” giving it a full Chicago blues/Junior Wells-style overhaul, before delivering the acoustic country blues, “Good Old Days,” which states that “they were good for you/But not me or mine.” The mood shifts dramatically again for “Man Like Me,” which boasts about the singer’s sexual prowess, carrying forward a traditional subject to a 21st Century audience atop a dark, funky beat.

The theme continues in the sugary ballad “Dirty Ole Man,” brightening the mood as Blue admits needing little blue pills, that he’s “no pup” and that, if goes down, he’ll need help getting up. “Shanghai Sunset” pays tribute to Sugar’s new home aided by Bo on sheng, a wind instrument composed of 17 bamboo pipes.

The funk returns for the cautionary “Downhill” before shifting gears for “Bonnie and Clyde,” an acoustic description of the legendary outlaws delivered with the distinct feel of the American West. The album closes with “Keep On,” another optimistic promise that, no matter our troubles, brighter days are on the horizon.

Sugar Blue is a world treasure, and Colors is a tour de force in a career that’s spanned five decades. Pick it up from most major retailers. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!

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