Big City Rhythm and Blues 2019

Big City Rhythm and Blues magazine
August/September 2019

Nancy Wright
Alive & Blue
Direct Hit Records/VizzTone 2019

It is my contention that perhaps no musical instrument is as capable of expressing such diverse emotions with such intensity as the saxophone. Sensuality, soulfulness, spirit, spirituality, sadness…sax can deliver them all, as exemplified by one its best current practitioners, Nancy Wright.

Originally from the Midwest, Wright has called the San Francisco Bay Area her home for about three decades. Her capability is emphasized by the mind-boggling list of blues performers who have utilized her talent: Lonnie Mack, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Katie Webster, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Ike Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop, John Lee Hooker….I could go on, but you get the message: top flight talent seeks to play with top flight talent.

A Blues Music Award nominee for the last three years for Horn Player of the Year, Wright has released several recent albums, including 2017’s “Playdate!” which showcased her backed by a group of sterling session musicians and a rotating cast of stellar guests: Joe Louis Walker, Chris Cain, Tommy Castro….On “Alive & Well” she is supported by her own band, comprised of Karl Sevareid on bass, Tony Lufrano on piano and organ, Paul Revelli on drums, and Jeff Tamelier on guitar. This group swings!

This set – over an hour-and-a-quarter long – was recorded live in December 2018 at The Saloon in San Francisco. Wish I could have been there; the enthusiasm and appreciation of the crowd are apparent, and well warranted. The ensemble deals out a dozen extended tunes, the shortest almost five minutes long, giving the members time to percolate together and then levitate in scintillating solos. Center of the festivities is Wright, of course, with her tenor sax alternately jittering, jiving, wailing, moaning, and crooning.

There are four instrumentals, beginning with track one, “Bugalu,” goosed into life by bass and drums, joined by restrained organ, and then enlivened by Wright’s spunky lead. Tamelier stays in the background on this one but delivers a unique and slightly dissonant guitar solo on the ensuing track; his leads and fills provide surprises throughout. The pattern persists throughout the set: long songs, tight band cohesion, great sax playing, sultry vocals by Wright.

Aside from five Wright original compositions, there are several notable covers. “I Don’t Want No Man” is a distaff version of “I Don’t Want No Woman,” made famous by Magic Sam on his classic album “West Side Soul” from 1969. “Jo-Jo,” another of the instrumentals, is credited to Wright but sure sounds like “Work Song,” the title tune of the 1960 album by jazz cornetist Nat Adderley and covered by many others, most notably the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on its 1966 album “East-West.” “Keep Your Hands Off Him,” similarly, sounds like “Got My Mojo Workin’“ with altered lyrics.

What we get then, and the live audience got, is emulation combined with innovation and syncopation, leading to an ovation…and a deserved one. If you need convincing, just listen to the longest track, an eight minute cover of “Soul Serenade” that demonstrates the meshed gears of this combo and the full strength and soul of Nancy Wright’s saxophone mastery.

– Steve Daniels

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