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Champion Bluesman Pleases

by Bob Powers

G21 Staff Writer

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It's been ten years since Grady Champion recorded and released his debut album. Champion, 29, is the youngest of 29 children and grew up outside of Jackson, Miss. When Grady turned 15, his mother uprooted the family and moved inner-city Miami. He attended high school there until returning to Mississippi for his senior year.

Champion admits that he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. "I didn't know if I was gonna be a DJ. I tried boxing. I tried everything. But it ended up bein' the music."

On his new album from Shanachie, Champion sings about his life in "Goin' Down Slow," which demonstrates why Champion is one of the most exciting performance in the blues genre. It's a stunner, and so are the other 12 tracks in this superb album, called "Payin' for My Sins."

Champion Album cover

Champion sings with a heart-wrenching sincerity, with just a touch of self-assurance when it's called for. There are moments of sheer joy in this recording, times when Champion sounds like he's testifying in an old-fashioned gospel church.

The selection of material for the album ranges from moving to sublime. Songs include Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me to Talkin'," "Some Kind of Wonderful" (made famous by Grand Funk Railroad), and "Goin' Down Slow," which Champion turns into a lament about AIDS.

With a rough-edged voice and a seriously funky sound on harmonica, Champion has produced an album that should attract blues devotees while drawing attention from fans who don't ordinarily reach to the blues bins at the local record shop.

Birds of a Feather

An album of piano and vibes? Occasionally the marimba substitutes for the vibes. Doesn't sound that promising, does it? But David Friedman and Jasper Van't Hof perform small miracles in their excellent release, "Birds of a Feather" (Traumton Records).

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Friedman, the vibes and marimba performer, has an impressive resume. Since 1989 he's been professor of jazz studies at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin, Germany. He's made several previous albums.

Van't Hof comes from a musical family. His dad was a professional trumpet player and his mother was a classical singer. He played at several jazz festivals while still in his teens. His album credits take up most of a page.

"Birds of a Feather" is intelligent, wry, and swinging. Most of all, it has a feeling of something different and enticing. A press release that accompanied the CD calls the two performers "romantics." With that in mind, you will find this album lovely and mesmerizing.

Third Movement

Avant garde music sometimes can be more than challenging. It can reach the middle of irritating, occasionally crossing the line toward utter dissonance.

Newcomer guitarist Martin Koller attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music near Boston. According to a press release, he then made it his goal to forget everything he learned about music. He wanted to return to the essence. He didn't make it easy on himself, heading consciously into blind alleys.

In the new album, "Right Now" (Traumton Records), Martin Koller's Third Movement takes trips down into blind alleys. Koller calls himself an escape artist who seldom takes the direct way, because the detour usually has the best view.

The music includes electric and acoustic guitars, guitar synth, fretless bass, drum programming and editing, along with electronix, all done by Koller. Partner in music Gerald Preinfalk contributes on alto, soprano, soranino and baritone saxes, bass clarinet and eb clarinet.

The result: often intriguing and listenable, occasionally puzzling and demanding.

Big (Band) Kahuna 

I love big band music. When I was a kid (a long, long time ago), my record collection consisted almost entirely of albums by Glenn Miller, Ray McKinley, Count Basie, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton.

The arrival of a promo copy of Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack's new CD, "Hawaiian Swing" (Concord Records), was exciting. For a couple of weeks, the disc stayed in heavy rotation at the Powers house. Perhaps that was a mistake, since the more you listen to this 14-piece group from Honolulu, the more you realize that leader Matt Catingub (the Big Kahuna himself) and his group are good, but not fabulous.

Don't expect the rebirth of the Big Band Era, and you'll find this a delightful disc. Catingub insists on singing, and his vocal work is no more than adequate, at best. As an old drummer, I appreciated the sparkling work of Steve Moretti, who keeps the band's tempos rock solid.

The choice of material is uneven. Only Rosemary Clooney can make "Come On-A My House" seem fun. I could do without the Hawaiian music, but I guess they figured "Hawaiian Long Song" and "The Hukilau Song" were required from a band based on the islands.

There are 17 tunes, all of which clock in at under four minutes. Thus, if you don't like a song, don't worry, since a new one will be showing up quickly.


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