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Unusual setting brings out blues great's best

Deep in the Blues
Deep in the Blues
By James Cotton with Joe Louis Walker and Charlie Haden

Gitanes / Polygram Records: 1996

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This review first appeared in the September 13, 1996 issue of the North County Times.

This imaginative grouping of Chicago blues legend James Cotton with guitarist Joe Louis Walker, a blues star in his own right, and jazz bassist Charlie Haden – most famous for his longtime association with free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman – results in a wonderfully rich collection that melds Cotton's Delta background with the others' more modern influences.

Most of the songs are performed in an acoustic setting, and this intimacy brings out the best in all three men. Certainly the presence of such major talent pushes Cotton. His harmonica playing is as good as on any of his recordings in years, with shading and nuance most harpists can only dream of. His voice, never smooth, has been roughened by 61 years of living, but it still conveys his youthful optimism. Walker's fans will enjoy hearing him playing acoustic guitar on most of the songs here, something he does too rarely on his recordings. And while Haden's admirers may not be surprised by the stylistic range this setting displays for the bassists, his playing is so soulful it doesn't need the gee-whiz anyway.

Cotton – a veteran of both Sun Studios forever touched by Elvis' presence and a long stint in the Muddy Waters band – is one of the most beloved and respected of blues harmonica players and vocalists. This album, more than most of what he recorded in the 1970s and '80s, shows the talent always on display in his live shows but sometimes not fully developed in the studio.