Review: 4 Jacks - Deal With It

A master class in supple, simmering blues
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As blues recordings go, this one's pretty much the equivalent of a superstar session.  The 4 Jacks are guitarist Anson Funderburgh, drummer/vocalist Big Joe Maher, pianist/organist Kevin McKendree, and bassist Steve Mackey.

The names will be familiar to most blues fans.  Funderburgh, the lean and laconic Texan, has led his Rockets for over 30 years.  D.C.-based Big Joe Maher has numerous recordings with his Dynaflows, and Kevin McKendree has served as Delbert McClinton's band leader for years.  Steve Mackey, an in-demand session player based in Nashville, has also worked with McClinton as well as countless others.

Recorded at McKendree's studio (he also mixed and produced), Deal With It is the work of consummate professionals.  The playing is utterly immaculate - there's never an extra note nor a note out of place, and solos are unerringly tasteful and restrained.  Though it's billed as a group recording, Maher is clearly the creative force behind the project.  He handles all the vocals, and apart from two instrumentals credited to the group as a whole, he wrote all the originals.  And anyone familiar with his earlier releases (his last few on Severn Records) will recognize the overall approach - relaxed swing and cool funk with sly, understated vocals, simmering throughout and never quite boiling over.

Indeed, even the instrumentals - where one might reasonably expect a bit of cutting loose - come across as controlled and focused, compositions rather than spontaneous jams.  That's not a bad thing.  The title track, a funky strut powered primarily by McKendree's organ and punctuated by Funderburgh's chunky guitar, kicks things off before swing takes over with the easy-going "Have Ourselves a Time."  Percy Mayfield's "I Don't Want To Be President," a rejection of the increasingly relentless scrutiny that comes with public office, sounds (like virtually every Mayfield song) even more timeless today. 

"She Ain't Worth A Dime," "Bobcat Woman," and the cleverly-titled "Ansonmypants" are all sweetly swinging shuffles, while "Your Turn To Cry" and "Bad News Baby" are slow, moody twelve-bars and "Thunder And Lightning" and "Texas Twister" straddle the line between rock 'n' roll and blues.

Most of the songs are economic gems - four of the disc's dozen tunes are under three minutes, and most of the rest are under four.  Performances, again, are equally economic, and neither Funderburgh nor McKendree really stretch out to any appreciable degree - the emphasis is on ensemble playing rather than instrumental excess, subtlety rather than flash.

It's all impeccable, yet organic enough that it doesn't sound slick or overproduced - it's the sound of a band, not a studio, veterans who've lived and breathed the music for years.  If some of the exuberance and the swagger is missing - there are no rough edges, and no real sense of urgency - it's more than compensated for by immaculate performances and the sheer mastery of all involved.

The blues are technically easy to play but notoriously difficult to get right.  Like the truly great in virtually all walks of life, these guys make it all seem effortlessly easy.  Great stuff!