Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise (2012)

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This begins, as most blues albums do, with a stamping rhythm and this heartfelt lyric in celebration of a bunch of stuff that’s not good for you. Only then, that chewed-clean template is joined by these bright blasts of shiny brass newness.

With that, the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s And Still I Rise boldly announces that it isn’t simply going to settle for being typical. The results are something reminiscent of the great big band-R&B intersections of Jay McShann, a band that boasted just as much grease as it did brawn.

That the vehicle for this opening-track revelation is Son House’s oh-so-familiar “Clarksdale Moan,” heard here in an utterly new way, only serves to underscore just how quickly and completely And Still I Rise pulls you in. Impulsively inventive, the album later adds the spicy colloquialisms of 1960s-era soul jazz, and of gospel, and of something further back still: “C-Line Woman” features a rhythmic structure, and vocal call-and-response, that recalls the chain-gang chants from which the blues once grew.

No one is going to confuse another rendition of the traditional “Big Legged Woman” and or Bill Sims’ bawdy take on Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues” (enjoyable though they may be) with something edgy and new. This is a well-trod ground. But, living up to its name, the Heritage Blues Orchestra keeps digging into new grooves — pulling in a squalling trumpet on the first, and a churning harmonica signature from Vincent Bucher on the second. In so doing, they uncover surprising new musical revelations out of unlikely places. Same with “In the Morning,” which combines the break-neck shuffle of a city blues with this thundering vocal accompaniment straight out of a mid-week choir practice.

They’re not finished. Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “Go Down Hannah” sways here like a second-line parade down the steep inclines of a French Quarter backstreet. “Levee Camp Holler” is deeper, and darker still. “Get Right Church,” arranged by Mack, rumbles along with all of the blunt force of a hymn reborn later that Sunday night in a juke joint. “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” is a cloud-parting moment of unabashed joy. Mack returns for a raw reading of “Chilly Jordan,” sounding like a country preacher offering a particularly effective sermon.

Then there’s “Hard Times,” an almost symphonic, three-part recombination of everything that’s come before on And Still I Rise, issued today by Megaforce/RED. Beginning as a duet with vocalist Chaney Sims, the song slows into a horn-driven reverie courtesy of arranger Bruno Wilhelm — almost as if a passing street band stopped by for a moment of sweet distraction — before the Heritage Blues Orchestra boldly returns to a finger-licking blues groove. Drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith is soon joined by a rascally group intent on establishing a cuff-around riff — sending And Still I Rise off with an entirely appropriate sense of both tradition and next-gen inventiveness.

It’s a tour-de-force ending for an album that scarcely needed one, not after so many enthralling left turns and offbeat declamations of independence from every electric blues cliche. Even while it’s deeply rooted in the past, the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s And Still I Rise never stops searching for a way to surprise.

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