shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

music reviews

Sleepy John Estes: First Recordings (JSP 6001)

In the back catalogues of our richest traditions, there are many signs to roads not taken, stylistic byways of often astonishing formative power - some of which far surpass those which became the mainstream of their time...and that still retain their power, for those in search of what they know not. Such are Sleepy Jon Estes first sessions, with Jab Jones - usually a jug player - on piano & Yank Rachel’s mandolin accompanying Sleepy John’s guitar & voice... Now, whilst Yank was a virtuoso, his instrument - mandolin, remember - doesn’t have much midrange to speak of, let alone bass...which left that entire range to the mercies of Sleepy John’s simple chopped chords, and Jab Jone’s strange hands. And what resulted was one of the most uniquely distinctive small band sounds of all time, and one which I - still - find it hard to credit that no one has yet copied &/or built upon.

For theirs was both an accessible and startling form of interplay, capable of being stretched in all sorts of directions. Jab’s left hand comps under Sleepy’s dogtrot, and he has a v.nice sense of how to vary things somewhat, so that together, they meld into an addictive (and subtly varied) pulse. But it’s his right hand that’s the marvel...albeit not for technical reasons, but because of its skill in sketching in bare-boned rhythm/lead melodic lines which alternately plunge and reach, like no other pianist I’ve ever heard. Counterpulses chase romping chordal counterpoints, involuted turns trade w/rhythmic arpeggios - nothing really “difficult” just, nothing much like anyone else... And, floating atop this, Sleepy John cries the blues, eternally circled & echoed by Yank’s fluid mandolin, chopping in w/rhythm breaks all the while...

Sleepy John’s other recordings are wonderful, to be sure, but nothing will ever beat these, his first sessions, which pioneered a truly wondrous band style...only to remain without issue, for none have yet followed in the footsteps of the great Jab Jones. So, to get a handle on what I’m attempting to describe, here, this time you really will have to have a listen, for these sessions are truly sui generis.

The rest of the disc is hardly negligible, either, including as it does the complete recordings of Noah Lewis’s Jug Band - surely Sleepy John’s only stint as a sideman, given the simplicity of his guitar work - as well as Noah’s solo harmonica sides, all things of rare beauty. Noah was possessed of the most sheerly aching tone and lyricism in early blues, and this disc, by rounding up all of his recordings outside of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, offers us yet another reason to treasure it. Not to mention the remastering - by the great John R.T. Davis, himself, the very best craftsman alive in this particular field, but one who has worked very little outside of jazz. Not enough, you say...then, how’s about a little wisdom from Sleepy, a true poet by any measure?

“If I hadn’t’a had my pistol, think I would run, myself.”

John Henry Calvinist