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Album Review

The 25 songs that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee recorded in the spring of 1958 have been reissued numerous times, and appear in this three-CD set under the title of the first album ever issued of them, Sonny, Brownie and Chris; "Chris" being Chris Barber and his band, who appear on a quarter of the material. The rest of the time, it's just Sonny and Brownie, or the two of them with pianist Dave Lee, doing their repertory of the period in a surprisingly fresh and engaging style. They'd just come off of a highly successful tour of the European continent with the Barber Band, and were buoyed artistically by their success with the trad jazz group and, personally by one of the more lucrative and entertaining tours the duo had ever made — playing to audiences who treated them like visiting royalty — that they didn't even get in the folk clubs in American college towns. The pair left behind so many live recordings — and so many records, period — that it's usually difficult to recommend one over another. But this album does stand out: not only for the spirited performances they both give, and the obvious joy they're feeling, on numbers like "Wholesale & Retail," and "Auto Mechanic Blues," and on their smooth, free-flowing, unique collaborations with Lee and with the Barber band. The latter's entrance, with Barber's trombone and Pat Halcox's trumpet joining Sonny's harp on "Betty and Dupree" is a bit jarring for a moment, but they pull it all together in a matter of seconds the way they'd been working it out live for weeks; the other musicians, but especially Barber, can be heard rising to the occasion, with clarinetist Monty Sunshine pairing off with Halcox for a blues duet on the break on the latter song. The rest of the sessions were just as unusual and rewarding: each song offering its special combination of bent notes, improvisation, and virtuosity. (It is funny to think, however, that around the same time that these sides were surfacing, Muddy Waters was outraging blues audiences in England by taking the stage with an electric guitar). The mastering on this edition is also impeccable, taken from what have to be first-generation tape sources, yet giving a lot more richness than these sides have shown in recent years. Neil Slaven's notes are a match for the box's production in quality and depth. The other two albums in the triple-CD set are Tribute to Big Bill by Big Bill Broonzy, and Blues and . . . by Josh White.

Sonny, Brownie & Chris, Chris Barber's Jazz Band
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