Jerry Portnoy, the blues harp virtuoso who has worked with both Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton has said that "Rock and roll is a sprint; the blues is a marathon." To further the analogy, a marathoner requires an almost single-minded devotion to running to be successful. Mark Hummel's new release MARRIED TO THE BLUES demonstrates that the blues is also much like a marriage, a single-minded devotion over more than two decades to playing the blues harp. This point is hammered home on the album cover, one of the most unique in recent years, in which Hummel and his harmonica are positioned atop a wedding cake. If the music counted for nothing else, this album is worth owning for the cover.
Seven of the thirteen tracks on MARRIED TO THE BLUES are originals written or cowritten by Hummel, but they blend seemlessly with the covers which are handled by Hummel and his band with exceptional craft. The strong point of this album is not the vocals---Hummel has neither the smoothness of Robert Cray, nor the expressiveness of B. B. King---but the exceptional blues musicianship. At times it's easy to forget that this is a Mark Hummel album. Whether it is ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Duke Robillard slinging his axe on "I Got Eyes", Robert Cray sideman Jim Pugh's Hammond B3 in "Jungle Scotch Blues", Rusty Zinn firing up another guitar solo on "Rock & Roll Baby", or Hummel himself on the album's opener "They Don't Want Me to Rock", all the musicians contribute equally to the solos. It's not just in the solos either: Steve Lucky hammers away at the piano keys throughout the otherwise typical blues riff of "Find Some Boogie." Lucky's improvisation brings this piece to life by clearly inspiring the other musicians to their finest.
Hummel gets several opportunities to pay tribute to elder bluesmen. In a rare collaborative effort between harp players, the venerable Charlie Musselwhite joins Hummel for a duet during the instrumental "High Steppin'"; the interplay is wonderful. In Hummel's own "Bluesman", a Chicago blues groove, homage is paid to those who have helped Hummel in the past. Though they are no longer around to see his current success: Mississippi Johnny Waters, Sonny Lane, Cool Papa, Charles Huff, Luther Tucker, Buddy Ace, Eddie Ray, and Troyce Key would be proud.
In addition to surveying standard blues territory, the most surprising cut is "Jungle Scotch Plaid" which might be considered more jazz than blues. But don't let labels stop you from enjoying this song, which Hummel seems to be at his best, most melodic playing on the album.
MARRIED TO THE BLUES is a fine album of classic and contemporary blues performances which remind us of the basics of the blues: a tight band working together can create an album is greater than the sum of the individual performers.
MARRIED TO THE BLUES is Mark Hummel's second album on Flying Fish Records (FF 70647). Both his first record, FEEL LIOKE ROCKIN' (1993), and his current releasecan be ordered from Flying Fish Records, Inc. (1-800-FYI-FISH).