Blues Harmonica Giant Billy Branch & Sons of the Blues Reimagine Little Walter in a Contemporary Light on ‘Roots and Branches – The Songs of Little Walter’ (ALBUM REVIEW))

Today Billy Branch arguably holds the title that Little Walter held in the ‘50s, “Chicago Blues Harmonica Master.” It’s only fitting that he pays tribute to the iconic bluesman, Little Walter Jacobs, who established the blues harp as a cornerstone of the Chicago blues sound. When viewing the song list from this tribute of sorts, Roots and Branches – The Songs of Little Walter, it immediately brings into question why Branch, who is as contemporary and forward-thinking as any bluesman on the scene, would do a project of tunes, endlessly covered by others. In fact, Branch & The Sons of the blues wanted to bring Little Walter’s songs into a more contemporary framework where touches of funk, gospel and rock would filter in. The challenge was to retain the original spirit of the songs but to give them a new, cutting edge. Even the title, “Roots and Branches” has a clever edge to it.

The album was recorded in Chicago and co-produced by Billy Branch, Rosa Branch and longtime Sons Of Blues pianist Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi. It features 15 songs written by and or made famous by Little Walter. Each song is played with a balance of reverence and improvisation. They certainly do not sound like museum pieces but rather seem timeless in this context.  Along with Branch and Ariyoshi, the band features guitarist Giles Corey, bassist Marvin Little and drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas. At the end of the album, Little Walter’s daughter, Marion Diaz, shares a few anecdotes of life with her legendary father. 

With a huge musical vocabulary and dynamic versatility, this is not the first time he’s incorporated other elements into his playing.  He was a key principal, along with Ronnie Baker Brooks, in transforming Rolling Stones songs into a Chicago blues style on last year’s album and subsequent tour, Chicago Plays the Stones. This past spring he collaborated with 92-year Chicago jazz and blues guitarist George Freeman, on the terrific George The Bomb!  Branch not only incorporates soul, funk and rock elements to his playing, but his improvisational soloing excursions are akin to a jazz horn player. His upper register licks and his emotional, melodic ballad playing define his sound even further. Branch is a strong vocalist with solid intonation and phrasing, an in-demand session player who guests on countless projects and is a well-acknowledged band leader. He is a three-time Grammy nominee, a three-time Blues Music Award winner, a two-time Keeping The Blues Alive Award winner (for Education) and a two-time Living Blues Critics’ Award winner. Branch has recorded eleven albums under his own name and has appeared on scores of others.

Delve into the classics like “Mellow Down Easy,” “My Babe,” “Juke,” ”Blue and Lonesome” and “Blues With a Feeling:” perhaps the best known Little Walter tunes of the repertoire, and it’s immediately clear that these are fresh interpretations rather than faithful renditions. Not is Branch is total command of his instrument but Ariyoshi and Giles especially have long been recognized as two of the current strongest players in the city on their respective instruments. You’ll see their names grace many albums in recent years. A standout track is the medley of the classics “Just Your Fool” combined with Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.”  “Boom Boom Out Go the Lights” features perhaps Branch’s best solo, rich in range and tone. The last track is a beautiful touch as “Daddy’s Girl,” Marion Diaz, Little Walter’s daughter, reminisces about how she, as a little girl, and her mom were the inspiration behind “My Babe” and ‘Nobody But You Babe” as Little Walter would play these tunes to them in their living room before going off to rehearsal.

Another bonus is the liner notes, written by Alligator President and Founder Bruce Iglauer, which are full of copious quotes from Branch. Here’s just one excerpt. “I acquired as much of Little Walter’s music as I could find -amazing material from the man who revolutionized blues harmonica. I was mesmerized. How did he get that sound? How could any human being possibly assemble notes from this humble little instrument as rapidly and fluidly? How the  hell did he think of these insanely creative crazy solos? I was astounded yet inspired enough to attempt to try to play at least on some level like Little Walter.”

Years from now, some may be asking similar questions about Branch.


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