The 1950's are widely regarded as the golden era of Chicago Blues, a time of staggering creativity that saw the template firmly established. Central to the sound was Chess Records, home to titans like Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter.
The music itself wasn't terribly complicated stuff - some blues standards consist of little more than a repeated riff. And the Chess sound, by contemporary audio standards, is downright primitive. Yet it's raw and real, and still packs a potent punch to this day.
It's also a sound that's travelled far and wide. Sugar Brown - real name Ken Chester Kawashima - was born in Ohio to a mother from Korea and a father from Japan, and now resides in Toronto. Harmonica master Barath Rajakumar recorded and produced the sessions at his newly-opened studio in Montreal, using vintage equipment and a full-track mono tape recorder.
The results are uncannily like a long-lost Chess recording from the 50's. It's gritty and tough, lean and mean, and absolutely free of artifice or pretense. It is, as one old blues song says, "as serious as a heart attack."
Kawashima (the name used in the credits) wrote much of the material on Sugar Brown's Sad Day (the title song was written after learning of his father's death), employing standard 12-bar structures throughout. ("What Are We Gonna Do" sounds like at least a dozen Muddy Waters tunes, while "Hook-a-boogie" is rather obviously a tribute to John Lee Hooker). Covers include a pair from Elmore James, one each from Muddy Waters, Floyd Jones, and Jimmy Rogers, as well as a surprising cover of The Velvet Underground's "Run Run Run."
Sugar Brown and Rajakumar are joined here by Ben Cassie on rudimentary drums and stand-up bass, with Zak Izbinsky adding guitar on three tracks. There's nothing fancy or revelatory about any of the performances (though Rajakumar is a truly world-class harmonist), and the sound, again, is vintage. But while many projects like this come across as earnest but imitative, this one sounds like a valid addition to the catalog of classics.
Not to all tastes, perhaps, but if old-school Chicago blues are your thing, this one's well worth seeking out. Highly recommended!