Carlos del Junco: Blues Mongrel (NorthernBlues)

bluesmongrel.jpgHarmonica. Anyone can play. The considerably smaller slice of humanity sufficiently gifted to make the instrument transcendent includes Cuban-born/Canadian-raised Carlos del Junco. Treading differently, yet on familiar sonic turf, del Junco manages a captivating rearrangement of the furniture down in the mood room. Inspired by a substantial amalgam of masters and thoroughly imprinted with his own indelible signature, the music rolls, tumbles, and is guaranteed pleasure for blues harp fanatics. The rest of you won’t be disappointed either.

The seed of the Blues has scattered globally (a good example: Charlie Musselwhite’s band includes the young Norwegian guitarist Kid Anderson). It mustn’t have been too difficult for it to spike north out of Chicago and cross the border. Vast, bland, and beautiful, Canada has yielded a powerful short-list of blues harp blowers, including the mostly dormant “wild child” Dave ‘Bender’ Burgin, Paul Reddick, and del Junco. Carlos’s audacious, fat honky-tonk mambo sets him apart. Think about it: the melding of Cuban cultural input and an Arcadian spin. Classic innovators augmented with the groundswell of such prime latter-day harp avatars as Butterfield, Musselwhite, Thielemans, et al. The rich medium del Junco was nurtured in.

Fifteen years and a half dozen recordings brought del Junco to his “Blues Mongrel” opus.
The rather hot playing technique “overblowing” gives del Junco’s sound a ferocious edge. Mentored in the technique by harmonica master Howard Levy, del Junco pulls an audacious, greasy chromatic tone from a diatonic harp. His refreshingly non-traditional remodeling of familiar classics such as Walter Jacobs’s “Blues with a Feeling” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine Below Zero” are potent updates.

Guitarist/songwriter Kevin Breit makes a significant contribution to the set. His oozing-with-sly-chops guitar plays well with del Junco’s assertive harp. Breit has broad experience as an accompanist: k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, and Norah Jones, among many others. His rubbery instrumental ”No Particular Place” cavorts along, equal parts shuffle and hoedown, simultaneously flirting with the riff from Miles Davis’s “Milestones.” While the title might be a trifle clichéd, Breit’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” works as a bittersweet ballad and a good vehicle for del Junco’s husky, smoky vocal style. Percussion grooves from Arturo Avalos kick three selections into a coolly unique Latino-blues vein: the rock-steady opener, “Blues with a Feeling,” is driven by a wild bongo/conga backing. Diversity of material is well represented via a sultry, percussion-accompanied visit to the theme to “Our Man Flint,” demonstrating a Lee Oskar harp flair, another of del Junco’s influences. The instrumental “Let’s Mambo” pretty much speaks for itself in the island groove context.

Carlos del Junco’s talents categorize him amongst the handful of latter-day harmonica envelope-pushers such as Norton Buffalo and the underrated chromatic-savvy Paul DeLay, and pays homage to risk-taking old-school pioneers like Chicago’s Carey Bell. It’s hard to conceive of harmonica fans being unappreciative of discovering this guy. - Tali Madden

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Mr. Madden is an ex-New Yorker and currently Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer. Among other things, he's written extensively on blues and jazz for the late Blues Access magazine, produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio, and contributed to the MusicHound Jazz and MusicHound Blues books.

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