10 songs – 41 minutes
Early In The Moanin’ is a fascinating, if cryptic, release by The Soul Of John Black. Essentially a solo project for John Bigham, the former guitarist and keyboardist for pioneering ska-funk-punk band Fishbone, Early In The Moanin’ inhabits a modern soul-blues world where the focus is fundamentally on grooves and rhythms.
The music, by itself, is tremendous. Opening with the funky love song of “Can’t Be Helped”, Bigham sings with sly humour “The doctor says I can’t be helped – by nobody but thee – now lay some hands on me.” In groove and atmosphere, the track is reminiscent of Deep Purple’s 1974 funk-rock masterpiece “Sail Away”. Often with a relatively simple structure, each song on the album captures a mood and rides it. The solos are short and punchy, but the key to everything is the rhythm. “Crooked Leg” is a prime example, building from its opening funky bass line, every instrument drives the track forward as a multitude of voices combine over the top. The song stays on one chord throughout, but there is no let-up in tension or groove.
There is very little information easily available about the The Soul Of John Black. Neither the band’s website nor its Wiki entry is particularly detailed. The CD cover notes that Bigham wrote and produced all the songs on Early In The Moanin’, while the press release that accompanied the CD tells us that Bigham brought in various session players to contribute to the album, including Jake Najor (drummer with Big Daddy Kane), Mark Levy (Duradero Drums), Greg Camp (Smash Mouth singer and guitarist) and Curtis Sanford (drummer with R&B band, The Deele). It is not clear however what tracks they played on and whether there were other musicians who contributed. What can be said is that Bigham’s vocals and guitar playing are tremendous, and whoever else actually played on the songs deserves great credit.
Bigham’s own history is that, after growing up in Chicago, he worked with Miles Davis, Dr. Dré, Nikka Costa, Eminem among others, before settling in Los Angeles. He explains on his website: “Oddly enough, I didn’t get into really deep old school blues until I was working with Miles and he recorded songs with John Lee Hooker for the soundtrack to a movie called “The Hot Spot”. That music affected me profoundly. John Lee Hooker became one of my main guys. I also figured that if his music and Miles Davis’ could blend so beautifully, I should be able to find my own way of combining everything that I love. And that’s what The Soul of John Black is about.”
And this really is a pretty fair reflection of the music on Early In The Moanin’. The title track revolves around a simple-yet-hypnotic strummed guitar pattern; “Early Riser” is a stunningly beautiful acoustic ballad; “I Wish I Was Making Love” is a blues ballad with an aching introductory guitar solo; “Thursday Morning” has ghostly slide guitar underneath a gospel melody, recalling Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel-blues. The grinding “Chicago Blues” is closer to rock than blues with its hip-hop backbeat, but it remains oddly affecting. And closing track, “Sunset Drive” is a dreamy instrumental mixing hip-hop drums and acoustic guitars. There is blues in all the songs, but with equally large doses of soul, reggae and rock.
There is grit and beauty in this album, but above all there is rhythm and mood. It is a lovely release.