Simon Sullivan – Groovin’ (2012)

You might be tempted to peg Simon Sullivan, a Canadian singer-songwriter and harp player, as a bluesman. And there’s plenty of that to be found here. In the end, though, that would be selling the genre-busting Groovin’ short. Across 10 tracks, six of them originals, Sullivan and his crack band of musical confederates move across a dizzying landscape of sound – from rockabilly, to jump blues, to funk.

He begins with the appropriately titled “Good Morning, Blues,” a groove-focused original with a scorching turn on the harmonica. A winking cover of Willie Dixon’s “Built for Comfort” then reanimates all of the bawdy humor of the original, with happy-go-lucky harp solo to match. The original “Swing and Sway,” however, is the first hint that something more is amiss here, with a feel that’s something like the Kansas City cats of the pre-bop era. As Sullivan settles into a confidential, late-night whisper, pianist Lee Batchelor, bassist Andrew Affleck and drummer John Crown show themselves to be particularly effective — playing with a delicately executed sense of timing. Batchelor’s solo moves effortlessly across a stunningly broad palette, going from the expected rolling 88s to an angular improvisation that’s completely outside the blues idiom.

“Flat Foot Sam,” the old Oscar Wills cut, has a similar sense of jump-blues propulsion, with a performance of the half-spoken lyric about an unlucky sad sack that would have brought a smile to Louis Jordan’s face. Sullivan’s turn on the harp, chuckling and cackling, is perfectly constructed. Later, his own “Pitch a Boogie” reanimates the same era, though this time Sullivan adds a rockabilly tinge and a locomotive harmonica aside. When he invites all of the neighbors in for his house party – mindful, of course, that they must have some gin – it’s hard not to recall the joys of Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” “I Am Groovin,’” the second of two originals Sullivan co-wrote with David Cyrenne, is an update of the classic blues car song — lovingly recalling, to the finest detail, everything that makes one of those old Detroit models so special. Longman’s solo plucks and soars, very much in the tradition of B.B. King. “Take Your Hand Off My Soul” downshifts into a more contemplative vibe, with Longman offering a reverie-filled riff. Sullivan rises to the occasion, growling and snapping like Bobby “Blue” Bland in a quieter song structure that inevitably becomes a feature for the vocalist.

Perhaps best of all is Sullivan’s take on the Hank Thompson classic “He’s Got a Way with Women.” Singing with a sad majesty, Sullivan makes the most of the song’s smart turn of phrase — “and he just got away with mine” — even as Batchelor offers a churchy, just-right solo at the piano. Then there’s “Funky Monkey No. 1,” which finds Sullivan adding a harder edge to the album’s established groove, more in keeping with the 1970s funk of James Brown and the Commodores than with anything ever put out on Chess.

He concludes with a new take on “Orange Blossom Special,” the late-1930s Ervin Thomas Rouse train song which had long been a fiddle feature before Johnny Cash reimagined it for the harmonica in the 1960s. Sullivan hews closer to that later interpretation, even keeping the lyrics. Barry Haggarty offers a bluegrass-infused turn on the acoustic, before Longman steps forward with a searching solo. All the while, Sullivan squeals along on harp, growling and snapping through the vocal — even as the band chugs along in perfect time.

It’s another tour de force, in yet another genre setting, to complete an album that presents as blues but in the end can’t be contained by any one label.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso