(4 / 5)
My favourite harmonica players? Funny you should ask…Stevie Wonder, Magic Dick of the J Geils Band, Mark Feltham of Nine Below Zero, Giles Robson – probably the # 1 blues harmonica man in the UK right now, the great Larry Adler, Manchester based Clive Mellor (who really is awesome), Billy Branch, Junior Wells and maybe a few more.
I know, I know; Little Walter’s not on the list. OK, him too. Many see him as the Guvnor. Of course, he played with Muddy Waters for many years, as did the late and the great James Cotton who died in March of this year (2017) at the age of 81.
Here, French harp player and singer Nico Toussaint pays tribute to his hero James Cotton, after a break from recording for a while, making his comeback with a record entirely dedicated to the repertoire of Cotton, the legendary harp player and singer.
On this project, Nico pays an affectionate and accomplished homage to his all-time greatest influence and mentor, fronting a top notch eight piece band plus special guest, Chicago-born trumpeter and singer Boney Fields, now based in France, who played with Cotton.
Fields blends funk and blues as a singer and horn player, and has worked with Lucky Peterson, Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Liz McComb, George Clinton, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins and others.
A professional musician since 1998, Nico has cut 13 albums under his own name on Dixiefrog. A repertoire mainly focused on the 1950s Chicago blues sound, blended with contemporary blues.
He met James Cotton in 2003, when he was in the US and ended up sat on his hero’s lap on stage, blowing James’ own harmonica. A moment he will never forget. Nico has also played with the likes of Billy Branch, Luther Allison, Eddie C. Campbell, Jimmy Johnson. He has recorded/worked with Rod Piazza, Guy Davis, Albert Castiglia, Mudcat Ward, Andrew Strong and many more. Touring all over the world.
His song, “How Long To Heal” won best blues song at the 2012 ISC competition. The judges were Tom Waits, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Suzanne Vega, Brian Setzer and James Cotton, among many others. In 2015 he won harp player of the year at the South Carolina Society IBC.
Here he is joined by Michel Foizon on guitar, JP Legout on keyboards, Antoine Perrut on bass, Romain Gratalon on drums, Pascal Drapeau on trumpet, Cyril Dumeaux on tenor sax, Sebastien “Lep” Arutti on trombone and trumpeter Boney Fields on vocals and a solo on the opener, “No Cuttin’ Loose”. 13 tracks, produced by Nico, who takes lead vocals and all harmonica parts. Recorded in France in May and June 2017.
Nico came up with the idea in 2016, when taking an eight month break from music, travelling and teaching. He returned home determined to assemble a crack eight piece band to recreate the spirit of Cotton’s 1986 big band album “Live In Chicago”. Boney Fields who guests here, was on that very album.
Nico fell in love with Cotton’s playing when he first heard him on Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again” record, back when Nico was just 15. Nico has toured and recorded with two of Cotton’s band members, pianist David Maxwell and drummer and guitarist Killer Ray Allison. He has also crossed paths with other Chicago-based bluesmen who had played with the great James Cotton, including Michael Coleman.
Nico eventually recorded a live album in Boston, backed up by the same band as the one on Telarc’s 1999 “Superharps” album, which starred James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Sugar Ray Norcia and Billy Branch. The first album of a ‘Superharp’ ensemble was Alligator’s best selling “Harp Attack!”, with James Cotton, Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and Billy Branch in 1990.
James Cotton began recording in the mid 60s, including working with British jazz and blues legend Chris Barber; “Chris Barber Presents Jimmy Cotton” and “Chris Barber Presents Jimmy Cotton”, two 45-rpm EPs with this British band. released in 1965. Using the name Jimmy not James Cotton. His last album was 2013’s, “Cotton Mouth Man” from Alligator.
For my ears; a harmonica played badly or without equal amounts of grace and fire, can have the same effect as a violin in the hands of an eight year old child on their first lesson. The kind of harmonica played by folk artists, sat on a rack while they strum acoustic guitar, turns me right off. You know, the Dylan thing. Sorry!
But it is one hell of an instrument in the right hands, or should I say lips! In Nico Wayne Toussaint, it is in very safe hands indeed. His warm tone and daring, passionate style, creative phrasing and uber-control is a delight to listen to. His vocal is not quite up to the standard of the harmonica and the power of the music from the band, but it still does the job nicely. The horn section is red hot.
The material dips into the songbooks of Percy Mayfield, Alan Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Merle Haggard and of course, James Cotton himself; five of his songs here. I’ll not cherry pick the best cuts, because it is all of a high standard and nothing dodgy here at all.
Quite obviously a labour of love; a fitting tribute to a true master of the ‘Mississippi saxophone’ from the Frenchman, a big talent in his own right.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’