James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite,
Billy Branch, Sugar Ray Norcia

Telarc CD-83472

Not so long ago, the idea seemed fresh: Bring together some of the finest musicians in the business and have them record on a common theme, be it a tribute to a particular artist, genre or instrument. In recent years, however, this concept has been exploited repeatedly, and its novelty value has diminished greatly.

Thatís a good thing, actually, because it means that such recordings live or die on their own merits, and not on the names or reputations of the artists involved. Ideally, a summit session of name artists will create moments of synergy in which the players drive each other to new heights of spontaneity and creativity. Thatís good. At the other end of the spectrum is the meandering, unstructured jam, where everyone takes a turn and the result is dull and generic. Thatís bad.

Superharps resides on the favorable side of that continuum for the vast majority of its 63-plus minutes. It does this by spotlighting only one or two of its harpmeisters on each tune, and keeping most performances to a coherent four or five minutes. Best cuts include the Billy Branch showcase, "Mean Little Mama", which features the setís most exciting harp breaks; James Cottonís instrumental version of Paul Williamsí gem from the late í40s, "The Hucklebuck" (with some tasty guitar from Kid Bangham); and "I Put My Baby Out," with Sugar Ray Norcia on harp and vocals. My, but the man can sing.

The final cut, "Harp to Harp," is 11-plus instrumental minutes of slow blues, with around-the-horn harp solos for everyone. While it may sound heavenly to the harp fanatic or student, the typical blues listener might find it endless. Think of it as a bonus track on an otherwise intriguing and richly diverse recording.

ó Bryan Powell

©2000 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA