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Grinning from ear to ear

Jimmy Blythe - Messin' Around Blues
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Feb. 14, 2008
Jimmy Blythe

Review by Brad Walseth

The early years of jazz on the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s had to be an amazing time. King Oliver, the Dodds brothers, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and just about any great early black musician paid their dues in South Side clubs. One of the great pities is that much of the early music was not recorded, and when it was, the quality is unfortunately often quite poor. What a pleasure it is then to hear Delmark Records recent release of Jimmy Blythe's Messin' Around Blues, which was recorded from enhanced pianola rolls "recorded" by Blythe himself.

Jimmy Blythe died of meningitis in 1931 when he was 30, but during his lifetime, he was one of the first and most active early recording artists, fronting several groups, backing blues singers and working with Johnny Dodds, Louis Armstrong and more on small group sessions. Blythe recorded numerous hand-played piano rolls (a device allowed the pianist to play naturally while the rolls were produced) of popular songs. However, Blythe also recorded his best performances of original blues and boogie-woogie songs, which have been unfortunately overlooked since the '20s. Using digital technology, and rare and classic piano rolls and player pianos, Blythe's playing has been resurrected for all to enjoy.

Many piano rolls, especially those "arranged" by arranger who cut the notes out on the rolls, sound mechanical, but thankfully this recording sounds so lifelike that you will think you are sitting in the room and listening to Jimmy Blythe live. It is the closest we have to a time machine, and it is an astonishing experience to hear someone play in a style falling somewhere in time when Ragtime started to branch out more into more experimental variations that eventually lead us to Jazz and Rock and Roll. Delmark's Bob Koester says Blythe's "Chicago Stomp" is considered by many to be the first recording of the Boogie Woogie style, and while that piece is not included on this recording there is enough "good clean" fun and hot playing on numbers like "Black Gal Make it Thunder," "Underworld Blues" and "Steppin' On the Gas" to keep the listener grinning from ear to ear.

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