By what criteria is a performer deemed a ‘legend?’ Is it simply longevity? Or does legend imply a greater contribution to the growth of a particular artistic idiom?
Despite a recording career that spanned a half-century, Jimmy ‘T99’ Nelson didn’t change the course of musical history. But the aptly-named “The Legend,” which turned out to be Jimmy’s final recording (he passed away in July 2007), provides a convincing argument indeed for Jimmy’s enduring status. Rarely are blues and jazz delivered with such relaxed assurance and absolute command.
A contemporary of the likes of Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris, Nelson often found himself grouped under the collective umbrella of ‘great blues shouters.’ Yet there’s little shouting to be found on this outing; instead, Nelson adopts a knowing attitude and a sly, understated delivery that simply renders shouting irrelevant. Nelson’s easy-going approach carries more confidence and, where appropriate, more menace than most can muster at full volume.
Backed by the very best in the business – the disc was recorded at Duke Robillard’s Mood Room studio, with Duke leading a band comprised almost entirely of Roomful Of Blues alumni – Nelson swaggers through a program the blurs the lines between jazz and blues (as Duke himself has always done). Accompaniment is superb, from the great horns of Sax Gordon, Doug James, and producer Carl Querfurth to the uncredited harmonica work of (one assumes) Sugar Ray Norcia on several tracks.
The musical forms are familiar, but Nelson displays both wit and sophistication on his own compositions, employing clever wordplay to keep things fresh. Covers include a languid and lovely “Sleepy Time Down South,” a deeply-grooved “Help Me” featuring significant ad-libbing from Jimmy, and the weary, resigned reading of Doc Pomus’ “Still In Love” that closes the disc in fine fashion.
Given the length of Nelson’s career, it’s understandable that he’d approach these tunes with knowing resignation rather than youthful enthusiasm. But the material is impeccably chosen, and Jimmy has the requisite experience to render each a nugget of wisdom rather than a shout of defiance.
If you’re looking for a relentless, driving beat to fill dance floors, you’d do better elsewhere. But if you’re seeking classic sounds delivered with elegance and aplomb by someone who’s earned the title of ‘legend,’ it simply doesn’t get much better than this.