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CD REVIEW -- Ron Sorin


Lake City

Big Lake Records

Ron Sorin CD

By Liz Mandeville

Ron Sorin has been a monster blues harp player since the late 70’s when his seminal blues group, Skid City, held down a weekly spot at Minstrels in Chicago’s Sheridan Road music row where you could see live music seven nights a week. When you wanted to hear American Roots Music, Minstrels was the place. Loyola College students filled the room to smoke, drink and dance to chestnuts from the books of Elmore James and Little Walter every Tuesday night until the liquor laws changed and the scene evaporated.  Sorin, whose words have always been few, expressed himself with a Hohner harmonica more eloquently than many speechmakers, gripping the harp in both hands, polishing the instrument with his signature brush of a mustache, rarely even looking at the audience he enthralled. His skills caught the attention of Big Moose Walker, Johnny Littlejohn, Detroit Jr. and other bandleaders of that era, giving Sorin the opportunity to build his considerable chops. 

While based firmly within the tradition of postwar Chicago Blues, Ron Sorin demonstrates a virtuosity that sets him apart from the average white boy, blues harp player, and puts him in a class of his own. On his debut CD, Lake City, Sorin surrounds himself with a dream team of seasoned blues professionals that complement his fine original material and choice covers. The result is an approachable, affable set that begs repeat listens.

Chicago pride is veritably oozing through every dimension of this disc, from its cover art and photo to its old salt wisdom and no fuss attitude. The overall message seems to be “OK, I’m not perfect but I persevere, never mind the weather.”

“7 Years” opens the disc with a medium tempo swing shuffle featuring Pete Benson’s keys swelling over drummer Marty Binder’s snare heavy shuffle, and locked in with co-producer Harlan Terson’s walking bass line; we hear the gospel soaked vocal duet of Tad Robinson and James Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler, an elder statesman guitar great who hosts jam night at Rosa’s club, contributes three vocal tracks to this disc. After hearing James Wheeler’s voice, I was hoping to hear his guitar as well.

However, the guitar on Lake City is expertly played by master string-smith Mark Wydra, whose work over the last three decades with Eddy Clearwater and many others has established him as one of Chicago’s most versatile, tasteful side-men.

The powerful shuffle that follows, “Hang Tight,” is another tour de force with Tad Robinson’s vocals dominant.  Tad’s glorious voice is also well-appointed on the stone gospel number, “Straight and Narrow,” a song that starts with minimal guitar and Robinson’s vocal slowly grinding the tune to life, but quickly shifting gears to an up-tempo tent revival cum camp meeting song. Piano from Sorin’s former Big Shoulders band-mate Ken Saydak lends the appropriate tinkle of authenticity. Sorin’s harp wends its way through these opening numbers, more of a support instrument than a feature, letting his talented friends flex their chops before he brings out his big guns on the lazy, “Chump Change,” an instrumental that shows Sorin’s clean, clear lines, fine tone and choice phrasing as he trades licks with guitarist Wydra, taking his time with the melody.

“Gimme Dat Harp Boy” is the one song on the disc that has Sorin matching chops with virtuoso vocalist, Mark Skyer, who is best known as a doorman for the venerable Chicago institution B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. He has a deep, growling blues voice that might be mistaken for Howlin Wolf, but blues club patrons wouldn’t guess that, as Skyer is rarely heard outside the recording studio. This track with Mark’s vocal is a refreshing change that brings the whole disc to a higher level with his juicy phrasing and committed vocal attack. 

Duke Ellington would’ve loved the treatment of his “Good Gal Blues,” a lovely instrumental just jazzy enough to provide counterpoint to the serious blues that surround it. Here Sorin gives his harp free reign to play over the melody, once again demonstrating his tasteful virtuosity as he cleanly maneuvers his way through this non-traditional selection.

We’re back in the ‘50s with Sorin original, “Hey.” Ken Saydak’s heavy piano hand trades licks in the Sunnyland Slim tradition with Ron whose harp is wailing over the Tad Robinson vocal that intones Biblical passages and platitudes.

“I’ve Got No Strings” is an exciting tour de force harp instrumental, reminiscent of Chess recordings that married the rock ’n’ roll guitar of Chuck Berry with post war blues. Ron Sorin’s harp sings, wails and demands attention; a chorus of guitar from Mark Wydra adds the perfect rockin’ pitch before Sorin grabs the attention back, building to a climax, breaking it down, then bringing the band back to a rousing close. It’s an instrumental that marries the finest qualities of several Chicago schools of music.

“Northeaster,” another Sorin original, is a tough blues romp -- up-tempo and pleasant.

Sorin’s, “Tell Me” reminds me of a Motown classic; I believe if Smokey Robinson heard this track he’d want to cover it pronto! It swings, has a danceable groove and Tad Robinson gives it the perfect treatment, complete with falsetto vocalize and a smile in his voice.

We are completely into quick shuffle swing mode with the clever “Trouble,” featuring one of Mark Wydra’s tastiest solos; in fact Wydra is truly in his element on a number like this.  If you close your eyes you might imagine you were listening to Les Paul.  To quote Sorin’s lyric, “Trouble never looked so good!”

Bassist Harlan Terson’s song, “Autumn Rush,” is a delightful surprise, an instrumental with a nice head (that’s musician’s lingo re: the theme from which the musicians launch improvisational inspiration). Quiet and unassuming, this is almost like “Harlem Nocturne” with its subtle minor tones, but the song provides a sexy vehicle for showcasing Sorin’s harp skills. It takes unexpected twists thru the changes, keeping your ear interested throughout. I love the sound of the tom toms playing gently in the background in the drum part.

When I first heard the slow blues tune “Back Pocket,” I thought Ron Sorin had gotten Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist, Kim Wilson for this track! So similar is his delivery and attack, Tad Robinson could be Wilson’s vocal twin. Once again Wydra delivers a perfect solo, while Sorin explores the highest position on his harp, adding a soprano answer to Robinson’s lyric.

“City Slicker” is the closest you’ll get to the Chicago funk that’s dominated blues records coming out of this city for the past 20 years. What keeps it in the traditional vein is the unconventional drum part played by Marty Binder, with Wydra displaying Albert King-like guitar chops played cleaner than Windex.

The album wraps with “On My Way Home”; although it is a Ron Sorin original, it owes a debt to the works of Ellington. Or perhaps Sorin was listening to Chicago’s late, great big band leader Floyd McDaniel, who led the Blue Swingers in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Here Ron covers all the bases, working his way up and down the octaves of the blues harp, matching wits with another unsung Chicago hero, tenor sax man John Brumbach. When Ron and John play behind the solo by Mark Wydra, they make a formidable section. The song brings the CD to a pleasant close. Like a lovely coffee after a well cooked meal, this disc satisfies without being half baked or too rich; it’s a fine start to what we hope is a legacy of music from one of Chicago’s favorite sons.

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