Lowdown to Uptown
If Mark Hummel served a supper as solid as this CD, you’d leave his table stuffed to the gills.
The 12 cuts are a major helping of music that’s strong and hearty but tactful — as is the wont of modern harp virtuosos who seem as a group to eschew the bombast favored by guitarists.
Guitarslingers also tend to showcase their solos more than they rely on co-op work with their bandmates, while Hummel’s accompanists very significantly flavor songs, not only with the generous blowing space they’re afforded but by their prominence in the mix (a tack abetted by smart soundboard work from engineer Gary Mankin).
Guitarist for this 12-cut set is Junior Watson, whose work helped make Kim Wilson’s Tigerman one of the best harp-based albums of the decade. He’s in similarly good form here but plays interestingly against character and trend by using chords with marked infrequency, offering instead single-note riff lines to anchor such songs as the opening "I’m Hooked" and "Ooh La La."
This offers a sparse and spacious flavor to the proceedings but don’t think that makes it empty; Watson’s sound is fat ’n’ full as ever, and Mankin places drums and piano just right ear-wise. Both the aforementioned tunes are rhythmically persuasive; the former has three solo choruses from Watson and two from Hummel, which is rather self-effacing for the harp blower.
Not that he offers any short shrift on harmonica. The instrumental "Po’ Man’s Shoe Shine" has harpwork that’s interesting and energetic every second of its generous duration (5:25), with Hummel blasting away bolstered by deliciously earth-toned guitar from Watson and slappin’ upright bass from R.J. Weber. Low and mournful is "West Coast Flood," an even lengthier instrumental. "In a Sentimental Mood" is a misty reading of the Ellington tune with no less a light than Charles Brown on piano.
Hummel sings well, too. His tone is good and his delivery thankfully uncontrived. Rhythmically the disc flits from the Sun-style galumph of "Ease My Mind" (Howlin’ Wolf fans will like this one) to the witty Jimmy Reed l’hommage "Underhanded Woman" (great harp wailin’ here) to jazzy proto-R&B on Billie Holiday’s "Now or Never." The Holiday number features a vocal assist from Brenda Holloway of the Johnny Nocturne Band.
Tone-Cool’s first Hummel CD was Heart of Chicago which was excellent. Plainly, he has bypassed the sophomore slump.
— Tim Schuller