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Johnny Charles - Stratified

Blues Leaf Records

10 tracks; 41.12 minutes

Johnny Charles is based in New Jersey and this is his third CD, his second for Blues Leaf Records, also based in NJ but perhaps best known for issuing Janiva Magness’ early and Albert Castiglia’s recent CDs. The band is bass, drums and keys behind Johnny’s guitar and the vocals (on just two tracks) are handled by ‘Nasty Ned’! I was not familiar with any of the names of the supporting players, apart possibly from Rob Kondor who may well be the same guy who played keys on Clapton’s “Journeyman” back in 1991 and features on two tracks here.

The opening tune “Stinger” is very much in SRV territory, with plenty of wild guitar over an uptempo beat. “Step on it” is again Texas influenced, but with more picking and a little country influence on the guitar. The third track “Take it easy baby” is one of the vocal tracks and is a straight 12 bar blues. ‘Nasty Ned’ handles the vocals well and Johnny’s guitar buzzes behind him, supported by good piano. The dynamics of the slow blues come out well and show that this is a well produced album.

“The King Shuffle” lives up to its title with a catchy refrain played in the style of BB leading on to some references to Albert. An attractive piece, if not entirely original. “You move me” is the second vocal feature and is more of a call and response between vocal and guitar. The solo is clear and concise before an uncredited harp solo comes in.

Track 6 is where things start to change. Until this point the playing is pretty straightforward blues, with lots of the usual influences on Johnny’s playing. “The Cat” is entirely different, with an immediately funkier backbeat and a sound more akin to the jazz rock of 70s bands like the Crusaders. In fact the player that this reminds me of the most is Lee Rittenour! Having said that I liked the change of pace and the track is successful in almost conveying the sound of a cat in some of the playing.

Next is “Texas Blues”, a slow blues instrumental, well done but nothing new. “Yardbird Stroll” is another step change, with an almost distorted sound before the guitar comes into play, again in jazz rock mode. The yardbird of the title does not appear to be Charlie Parker, so I assume that this is intended as a tribute to post-Yardbirds Jeff Beck and is well done; it could almost be a lost track from “Blow by Blow”. “Metro City” is a slower paced piece, again jazzy in tone. If it is a portrait of NYC it must be one of the wee small hours when the city is asleep apart from the patrons exiting the jazz clubs!

Closing track “Stratified” is very upbeat and makes a good bookend to the album with “Stinger”. Clearly a Strat man, Johnny demonstrates his mastery of his axe on this closer.

Overall a decent album, well produced and with evidence of a good guitar player here. It is brave to put out a predominantly instrumental album and, for me, it largely works. The three jazzier tracks seem to sit uneasily with the rest of the CD, whilst all being good in themselves. I did wonder whether the answer to that lies in the credit on the sleeve that all selections are copyright 1993 and 2009. Are some of the tracks (perhaps the three jazzrock pieces) from a far earlier session and included for variety?.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music. He has just returned from his first Legendary Blues Cruise.

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