When all’s said and done, the essential purpose of a CD review is to help consumers decide whether or not they should purchase a given disc. In the case of Shakin Smith’s debut release, "Wizard Of The Harmonica," the answer is a very emphatic YES!
Shake’s been playing around his native Buffalo for some thirty-odd years now. In that time, he’s shared stages with a rather impressive roster of visitors. Do names like Muddy, Wolf, or Buddy mean anything to you? How about an unqualified endorsement – along with some tasty guitar work - from Robert Lockwood, Jr., the only living person to have learned his licks from Robert Johnson himself? Harp players (I speak from experience here) tend to obsess about tone; Shake offers an object lesson in why the harmonica is sometimes called a "Mississippi saxophone." But in his hands the harp has the power of a full horn section, with a big brassy roar that seems to fill the room.
Stylistically, "Wizard" sits primarily in 50’s Chicago territory (though every tune is a Shake original). No surprise, that, since Shake lists both Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter as primary influences. But to my ears Shake brings something extra to the plate, an ability to make even the deepest grooves swing mightily, and he infuses his playing with a free-wheeling, jazzy sensibility. And there seems no end to his inventiveness; while there’s nothing gratuitous here – the solos serve the songs, not the other way ‘round – his fills are full of lightning-fast runs that seem to stretch the harp to the very limits of its musical possibilities. But Shake can also speak volumes with a single note, bending it, shaping it, wringing every possible nuance, every conceivable shade of blue out of it. Shake’s vocals display a musical intelligence that strikes me as the result of much hard work; if so he’s clearly learned his lessons well, always managing to inject just the right amount of whatever’s called for – passion, joy, pain – while thankfully understanding the value of restraint.
Supporting players, including the primary rhythm section of Sandra Dunbar (bass) and Murad Gunduz (drums), tend to stay pretty much in the background, providing solid and sympathetic support. Paul Bruschini’s fretwork displays occasional sparks, but everyone else seems content to let Shake dominate the proceedings – not at all a bad thing when you’re dealing with a monster talent such as his. Production values, too, are just right. No prissy, hissy high-tech recording, this; it’s raw and dirty and real, with the harp way out front where it belongs. Anyone with kids knows all about Harry Potter, the world’s favorite wizard. Anyone who cares for harp-fuelled blues ought to know about Shakin Smith, the "Wizard of the Harmonica."
This review is copyright © 2001 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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