The Chess Project – New Moves | Album Review

The Chess Project – New Moves 

CZYZ Records

No website provided

11 Track – 51 minutes

In the 1920’s Leonard and Phil CZYZ moved to America from their native Poland. They Americanized their last name to Chess. In 1947, Leonard bought a stake in Aristocrat Records and in 1950, his brother joined him as the sole owners of the company. They immediately changed the name of the company to Chess Records. The company specialized in blues and rhythm and blues initially and later expanded into other areas including early ventures into rock and roll. The company is recognized as a premiere label in the blues industry with performers Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and many others recording for them over the course of the company’s existence. The Chess Record Company went out of business in 1969 shortly before the death of Leonard.  Its catalogue was sold to Universal Music Group and is now managed by Geffen Records.

Leonard’s son, Marshall, worked alongside of his father and uncle for many years in the 1960’s, eventually creating his own label, Cadet Concepting. Marshall moved on to become the head of Rolling Stones Records and the President of Arc Music, a music publishing company. Marshall, at age 82, continues his involvement in the music industry today now joined by his son, Jamar. Jamar continues the Chess legacy, as a co-founder of Sunflower Entertainment and Wahoo Music Fund One, was named as a Billboard “30 under 30” alumni and was awarded an ASCAP Award in 2019. Together Leonard and Jamar have initiated CZYZ Records to re-introduce and re-interpret some of the famous songs that were released on the Chess label.

Together with Keith LeBlanc as co-producer, The Chess Project was initiated with a core group of three musicians including Keith providing the drums and all percussion on the album. Bernard Fowler, who has been a long-time back-up vocalist for the Rolling Stones steps out front for all the vocals on the album. Skip “Little Axe” McDonald who previously worked in the group Tackhead with LeBlanc, was brought in as the guitarist. Alan Glen and Ralph Rosen trade lead for the harp on most of the songs. Paul Nowlinski, bassist for Keith Richards and Patti Smith, plays bass on nine of the songs. Many other guests appear across the course of the album.

The album kicks off with the well-known “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)” written by Stan Lewis and first recorded by Little Walter in 1955. Keith LeBlanc, who has not worked in any blues groups, worked to maintain the integrity of the original songs but adds sounds that might catch the attention of today’s generation of music listeners. Ralph’s harmonica slides through a very rhythmic percussive pulse giving the song a slightly different sound from that you might already know.  “Muddy Water’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” has a feel of a hip-hop record with the repetition of the lyric “Somebody knockin’ on my door”.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine Below Zero” features some special effects outside of the normal blues realm and mixed with a funky beat. Another Williams’ song “So Glad I’m Living” follows. Marshall said he suggested this one as it seemed to reflect his current age and past life. Again, the song gets a very funky beat and a shift away from the sound that Sonny Boy created. Eric Gales joins on guitar with MonoNeon (Prince bassist) on Muddy Waters’ “Tell Me”.

Rosco Gordon wrote and recorded 1952’s “Booted”, which was released on the Sun label. It tells the story of a man who was kicked out of his home by a woman who has taken a new lover. The original song is considered to be a classic R&B number with Gordon’s piano leading the way. Here Mark Kaplan has joined on tenor sax and seems to be the front for a funky song in the vein of Bootsy Collins. “Mother Earth”, released in 1951 by Memphis Slim, states “Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you’re worth / When it all ends up you got to go back to Mother Earth”. This is another song Marshall suggested for the album as it deals with the reality of death, particularly as you get older. As with the other songs on the album, it gets a jazzy, funked up feel with Kaplan’s sax a major part of the sound.

“Goin’ Down Slow” was originally written by and performed by “St. Louis Jimmy” Oden in 1941. Little Walter later recorded it in 1961 and made it one of his trademark tunes. It features a grinding beat with Alan Glen’s harmonica leading. Little Walter’s “High Temperature” was recorded in 1957, a heated love song as he says, “he feels the fever get to you” when she is around. Another Muddy Waters’ chestnut “Smokestack Lightning” from 1956 probably comes the closest to replicating the vocals of the original as Bernard does use the Wolf’s howl in the song. Eric Gales on guitar and Reggie Griffin on piano and synthesizer join for the closing song of Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1963 song, “Help Me”. Eric provides some excellent guitar work on this song.

Blues traditionalists looking for some classic songs from the Chess library may not be ready for this album.  For those individuals, Marshall hosts “The Chess Tribute Channel” on YouTube. It features hundreds of rare videos, personal stories and a podcast section where old songs from the Chess library are played with some commentary.

In the 1960’s, many bands re-discovered the classic blues artists and brought many of that period’s musicians such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker back to the forefront. The listeners of the music started seeking the recordings of those artists and many of the early artists that had long since passed. The songs of John Mayall, The Rolling Stones, early Fleetwood Mac and others particularly from the British invasion shook the songs up to the chagrin of some of that period’s listeners but did accomplish getting the music of the bluesmen back into the mainstream. This album attempts to replicate that idea with sounds that are more in line with today’s music. Does it accomplish that? I don’t know. First is the problem of how to reach the intended audience, second is their acceptance, and finally an enticement to reach back like occurred in the 60’s. The presented music has the basis of the blues, but as noted, turns it on its head with an influx of funk and hip-hop.

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