Jean-Jacques Milteau - Bastille Blues

Jean-Jacques Milteau - Bastille Blues

It was tough for me to agree to write this review and I feel I need to explain a few things before I start. First, I am a harmonica player. I've been playing for a long time, more than 25 years now. Second, I don't generally like harmonica music. If you look though my music collection at home you won't find very many recordings by harmonica players. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the harmonica, and I love a lot of the music made on the instrument by a wide variety of players, from John Popper to Sonny Terry to Larry Adler to Toots Thielemans. But I can only stand so much of one recording of harmonica music before I go looking for something with a little more depth and variety.

A while back, my friend Benoit Felten sent me a tape he called French Harp, which consisted of a mix of music by a number of European harmonica players. This is one of my favorite recordings because, frankly, it's music first and harmonica music second. I like it not because I am a harmonica player, I like it because I like the music -- it just happens to contain prominent harmonica. Needless to say, J. J. Milteau is featured prominently on this recording. So when I agreed to review the new Milteau CD, Bastille Blues, it was with the hope that this would also be as deep and varied as my other experience.

Despite its name, Bastille Blues is not strictly a blues album. Perhaps there's more to this than I understand, but even the title track is not a blues song in the strictest sense of the word. Don't get me wrong, in my view, this is a good thing! The recording encompasses a rainbow of styles from driving rock to raucous cajun to mellow jazz, with a smattering of more traditional blues and jazz thrown in for spice. If you're looking for straight blues harmonica, this is not a recording for you. If I haven't lost you yet, let me say that what you will find on this recording is a lot of good harmonica and, more importantly, a lot of good music. Milteau is a virtuoso in the truest sense of the word, showing fluid technique and embracing a wide palette of styles. He knows how to express his musical persona not solely through a blazing display of pyrotechnics, but by choosing the appropriate technique for the context of the song. He seems as comfortable playing a slow, bobbing riff -- with enviably full, rich tonality, by the way -- as he is with demonstrating his considerable skill with speed and phrasing. Milteau goes so far as to share the harmonica spotlight, with Oliver Ker Ourio on chromatic on one tune.

Of course, Milteau has the best of support for his recording, getting flawless performances from the support staff on guitar, bass, drums and other percussion. The technical aspects of the recordings are also first-rate, and the studio technicians have done an admirable job of capturing the breadth of Milteau's tone, which ranges from breathy transparency to guttural growl. In fact, having spent time in the studio wrestling with sound men over exactly how to accurately represent the sound I wanted, I can imagine the effort of doing that again and again for the number of tonalities Milteau manages to create.

If anything is disappointing about this album I'd have to say that on some tunes it seems to lack a bit in spirit and spontaneity. I think this is frequently a problem in studio recordings, and possibly a result of a conscious attempt to satisfy a wide range of styles. But it's a minor complaint, and is more than made up for on other songs where the spirit of Milteau shines through.

So, in a nutshell, if you're looking for a hard-core blues album chock-full of Little Walter riffs, this album is not for you. If, on the other hand, you like a wide range of music with tastefully rendered harmonica virtuosity, J.J. Milteau is your man, and Bastille Blues just might be your album.

Tim Moyer

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