Johnny Adams - Walking on a Tightrope (Rounder) ++++ From Professor Longhair to James Booker to the Neville Brothers, New Orleans is littered with great musical talents who never quite made the commercial grade. Johnny Adams is on the list, but there's no hint that unrequited stardom has beaten him. Instead of retreading his handful of regional hits from years past, the magnificent blues-soul singer continues to make bold artistic strides.
Walking on a Tightrope is perhaps his crowning achievement, a blues album that avoids being one-dimensional, an invigorating showcase for Adams and a tribute to renowned songwriter Percy Mayfield.
Adams shows a strong affinity for the work of the late Mayfield, a contract songwriter for Ray Charles in the '60s and an unheralded vocal talent in his own right. Mayfield brought sophistication to his blues-based tunes. Adams' singing combines the black-tie smoothness of Lou Rawls with the range and expressiveness of Robert Cray and the soulful bluster of Otis Redding.
The album walks a tightrope between the primal and the urbane. Much of the credit goes to Louisiana-based producer Scott Billington (who oversees Rounder's Modern New Orleans Masters series). He assembled a top-notch band and crafted clean, open arrangements that capture the many moods of the blues.
The opening title track creeps along on a languid groove, evoking smoky late nights. Jon Cleary's tinkling piano weaves around Walter "Wolfman" Washington's spikey guitar. Adams' vocal is full of ache and urgency.
The next track, Lost Mind, takes a limo ride uptown. Drummer Johnny Vidacovich caresses the lightly swinging beat with brushes, buoyant horn arrangements evoke a pit-band flair. Sticking mostly to the lower register, Adams sings with playful swagger and pliant, jazzy phrasing.
Seldom does a blues artist embrace such polar examples of the idiom, especially back-to-back on one album. And so it goes throughout most of Tightrope, at turns dark, sunny, tense, loose, grim, witty.
Uptempo numbers such as Stand By, Never No More and Look the Whole World Over feature supple swing grooves and creamy horn parts; My Heart is Hangin' Heavy, Danger Zone and Baby Please trim back arrangements to little more than a rhythm section and slink along in a low-key smolder.
Instead of vocally strutting through the songs, Adams gets inside them, shading with subtle phrases, plumbing for nuance and meaning.
And he makes it all sound so effortless. Adams even embarks on a credible scat-improv during Look the Whole World Over.
His shining moment is on The Lover and the Married Man, a conventional slow blues tune. Adams belts, slides into crying falsetto, drops to rumbling low notes, punctuates with a piercing but tuneful scream. On the second verse, saxophonist Amadee Castenell answers Adams' lines with wailing tenor fills. The song builds into a delicious slow burn.
Tightrope is an inviting walk through the blues.