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CARLOS DEL JUNCO
(CUBA-USA, 1998) @
Reviews: BIG BOY Some Recycled Blues and Other Somewhat Related Stuff
The first time I heard Carlos Del Junco, I was foreman of the jury which voted him World Champion in the Blues competition at the World Harmonica Festival 1993 in Trossingen, Germany. At the time I had no doubt that this Cuban-born Canadian stood head and shoulders above the other students of overblow pioneer Howard Levy. I was fascinated by how he integrated the frequently over-intellectualized overblow approach with the more rootsy feel of Chicago blues and swing, without any stylistic contradictions and with total conviction. His subsequent CD releases bore witness to his continuing hard work and dedication to his music, and underlined his rare ability to combine technically exemplary harp playing with emotional content. My favorite from his first three CDs is the wonderful "Big Road Blues", an acoustic duo production with talented guitarist and singer Thom Roberts, and a loving tribute to the giants of pre-war delta blues. I next saw Carlos at the 1998 SPAH Convention in Detroit, where his two short appearances clearly demonstrated his growing musical maturity.
Now he's back with a new release on his own label, Big Reed Records, entitled "Big Boy". As the subtitle "Some Recycled Blues and Other Somewhat Related Stuff" would suggest, this CD covers a wide stylistic spectrum, ranging from relatively conventional blues to jazz and world beat. Carlos is accompanied on this outing by a top-line band, of whom the excellent Kevin Breit on guitar, dobro, mandolin and mandola is especially worthy of mention. I won't go into details about the individual titles except to say they are almost without exception highly listenable. The arrangements and the masterly interaction between the band members bear witness to professionals working together on a very high level. What captivated me from beginning to end, however, was Carlos' unmistakable harmonica playing. Although Howard Levy is clearly still a major influence - see the (to my mind) slightly superfluous Levyish excursion through all 12 keys in the opening track, "Heaven's Where You'll Dwell" - Carlos has for the most part now stepped out of Howard's shadow and speaks with a distinctive voice of his own. The precision and sensitivity with which he lays down his harmonica lines is without precedent in this music. At the same time his playing is both sensual and emotional, groovy and tasteful, with a tone which the majority of harp players would be happy to die for. This CD is a milestone of modern harmonica playing. It sets new standards for all comparable efforts and it sets them damnably high!
My only criticism is that Carlos' vocals, while undoubtedly good, do not quite measure up to his brilliant harmonica work. As an instrumentalist, Carlos Del Junco is world class. I have no hesitation in saying he is my favorite living harmonica player. Buy this CD!
BIG BOY Blues Review No. 46, April 1999
Oh, terrific - another musical technician. Or is he?
In the blues, lightening - fast, pitch perfect licks can't make up for a lack of basic gut level feeling for the music. Only when these two aspects join do we find the musician who raises his instrumental virtuosity to the next level.
Canadian harpist Carlos del Junco represents the perfect juxtaposition of these two worlds. He's an astounding player who has perfected a type of overblowing technique that gives his playing a jazzy feel. del Junco has fashioned an electric album rooted in the blues, but he's not afraid to merrily traipse into other territory. Don't let his appropriation of a Taj Mahal album title or his offbeat song explanations in his liner notes dissuade you. Though he describes "Heddon Tadpolly Spook" as "a quirky ska hybrid instrumental soundtrack for a Fellini film?", the cut is actually a jazz-blues mix that showcases his amazing blowing style.
More than half the album is instrumental, but when del Junco sings he projects an engaging "speaking" delivery reminiscent of Little Charlie and the Nightcat's Rick Estrin. Whether he's covering Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" or Ray Charles "Mess Around", this award - winning musician (he was Maple Leaf Blues"Harmonica Player of the Year Award) displays the kind of heartfelt emotional sincerity only the most dedicated bluesmen possess. And though we could probably do without another harmonica train song where the sound of the harp mimics the gradual acceleration of a locomotive, del Junco pulls off this blues cliche with such style, passion and lip-bending intensity that it seems he could have originated the idea.
Not content to mimic the styles of icons such as Little Walter, Paul Butterfield or Toots Thielemans, Carlos del Junco has the chops and imagination to push the boundaries of blues and to take the harmonica to new plateaus. And throughout BIG BOY, he keeps the music's natural heart and soul intact.