Lots of jazz musicians play the blues, feel the blues, and consider blues to be part of their everyday lexicon. More than a few blues players and shouters can turn out a torchy jazz ballad on demand — see Bobby "Blue" Bland, for starters. Still, only a small brotherhood of musicians has managed to work the stylistic differences into a single, unified language. The key musicians gathered on this 1969 date (saxophonist and vocalist Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, pianist Jay McShann, guitarist T-Bone Walker) belong to that elite group. Conflating traits typically associated with "jazz" or "blues," they show, on this recently reissued program of spirited jumps, how close the two can be.
This is scooting, rollicking, good-time shuffle-blues spiced with bebop's harmonic sophistication. Vinson (1917-1988), who earned his "Cleanhead" nickname as a young man when a lye-based hair-straightening product malfunctioned, was a master of the blend: On Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (audio), his alto saxophone accompanies the stinging attack and dazzling fingerwork of Cannonball Adderley and other greats. When he sings, however, he's a nothing-fancy, meat-and-potatoes dude in a juke joint, sharing a tale of woe. Of the many tracks that cast Vinson in the victim role, "Juice Head Baby" (audio) is particularly strong, the tale of a man exasperated by a whiskey-abusing woman. ("I worry when she's loud and rowdy, I worry when she's quiet / Gettin' darned expensive to keep up a whiskey diet.")
Vinson sounds laidback and comfortable here, and for that, his confident and supremely steady rhythm section deserves some of the credit. On the jump-blues selections, Walker spears crisp recurring rhythm patterns that create a profound forward motion, while on slower pieces like "Juice Head Baby," he frames Vinson's vocals with thoughtful, deep-inside-the-blues ad-libs. McShann, the legendary Kansas City bandleader (one of the first to employ a young jazz saxophonist named Charlie Parker), doesn't solo much, but he has a profound impact on the locomotion all the same. His joyous syncopations keep the boogie-woogie-influenced "Old Kidney Stew Is Fine" (audio) popping, and his carefully placed jabs provide a high-speed history lesson, gathering hints of ragtime, Count Basie's buoyant Kansas City rhythm and weary Delta blues into one piano attack. Like Vinson, McShann doesn't audibly shift from his "jazz" approach into a "blues" one, and that effortless blending of ingredients makes Kidney Stew a delicacy.