Given that non-singing harp players often receive little attention (speaking from experience here!), many wouldn't know Jerry Portnoy by name. Briefly, he was with Muddy at the end, stayed on with the Legendary Blues Band, worked with Ronnie Earl for a while before joining Clapton's band for the "Cradle" tour . . . in short, he's as good as it gets. A master of tone and technique, it's hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Jerry to stretch the boundaries of the instrument, something he's surely done with "Down In The Mood Room."
Fascinated by the sounds of the big bands, Jerry's chosen to apply the harmonica to the horn charts of many a classic jazz tune, in the process leaving much of the twelve-bar idiom in the dust. (Purists needn't despair - there's still a lot of blues here!). Hence the inclusion of Horace Silver's "Doodlin'," chestnuts like "Stormy Weather" and "Sentimental Journey," even George Shearing's "Lullaby Of Birdland." Jerry contributes a handful, taking the vocals on two of his own compositions (neither with great success). Producer Duke Robillard sings a couple, with Bob Malone taking one. The rest are instrumentals that effectively demonstrate why the harmonica is often called the instrument closest to the human voice. Jerry's an expressive player who favours melodic lines over honking; in truth it's easy to forget there aren't many vocals, as he mirrors a singer's lines so effectively. For the most part sticking to diatonic harp, he sculpts every note with care, bending, shaping to maximum effect while employing a tonal palette that ranges from bright, breezy metallic to raw distortion with plenty of dirt.
Blues fans will love "So Slow," a straight-ahead number that shows Jerry's absorbed and moved beyond the legacy of Little Walter; "You Rascal You," swings like mad, while "Lazy" is a chunky number reminiscent of Billy Boy Arnold's stuff. "Once Too Often" is a stop-time shuffle, "Money" is a reprise of the version Jerry cut with the Legendary Blues Band, and "Mood Room Boogie" is a harp blow-out, Jerry squalling to superb effect.
A project like this is risky; that it's so successful is surely due in part to the participation of the ever-swinging Mr. Robillard, who's straddled the line between jazz and blues throughout his career. Recorded at Duke's own Mood Room studios with the usual suspects - 'Sax' Beadle and Doug James on saxes, with bassist Marty Ballou and Steve Ramsay on drums - there's an unerring sense of swing even on the slow numbers, and the band's impeccable taste gets 'em through.
Harp fans will find this one essential; fans of big band jazz and jump blues will love it, as will anyone tired of the 'same-old-same-old' who's willing to exploring the outer edges of blues, jazz, or the harmonica itself.
Tiny Town Records, A Division of International Blues Management
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