"If I could sing, everything would be completely different," says mercurial guitarist Jonathan Freilich. "But I'm an awful singer, so all the diverse guitar stylings are a compensation."
That's the quick explanation for Freilich's scintillating and challenging six-string work in a number of bands, including his sprawling experimental jazz outfit, the Naked Orchestra, the Cuban music devotees Los Vecinos, and Jamaican rock-steady quartet 007. Freilich's musical personality is one usually dominated by his ability to think -- and play -- outside the lines, often in exotic contexts. So it's a bit surprising to see his name in the lineup of the newly formed band Deep Mud, an all-star ensemble (featuring harp man Jumpin' Johnny Sansone, keyboardist Bob Andrews, and the Iguanas team of saxophonist/bassist Joe Cabral, guitarist Rod Hodges, and drummer Doug Garrison) devoted to the primal, classic blues of '50s- and '60s-era Chess Records.
"That's some of the greatest American music," says Freilich. "I love folk music -- it's the basis of what I do. I used to play a lot more blues before I moved to New Orleans, and now I've become the 'weird' player in a lot of different situations, just because of the diversity of the projects I'm involved in. As far as styles go, they're just external forms; internally, you're always trying to look a little bit deeper into the music, and express yourself and maneuver emotionally."
For Freilich, Deep Mud offers an opportunity to reconnect with some of the favorite albums in his record collection. "I love all the Muddy Waters stuff with (guitarist) Jimmy Rogers, and some of the later stuff, with Matt 'Guitar' Murphy. I really love Sonny Boy Williamson, too, and even some of the lesser-known guys like J.B. Lenoir. These guys wrote great songs -- from Big Walter Horton to Robert Nighthawk, they were all really important to me at some point."
Deep Mud also has the potential to fill a considerable void in the local music scene. While there's no shortage of blues talent, the number of artists who play quality, straight-ahead, Chicago-style blues is scarce. The primary reason often boils down to syncopation; New Orleans accents usually seep into most rhythm sections, and second-line beats aren't a natural fit for the pure 12-bar blues form favored by Windy City electric blues pioneers like Howlin' Wolf. When the beat slips in Chicago blues, the quality of the rest of the band usually slips with it.
"It's a good thing to do to play those songs as they are, not using them as a vehicle to play whatever the drinks are dictating," says Freilich. "The drum style is so different here, but this is a different idea, too: to really buckle down on time. The pacing in Chicago blues is a more insistent thing for me."
That's always been one of the mantras of frontman and harp wizard Johnny Sansone, a Chicago blues devotee who knows the Big Walter and Little Walter catalogs like the back of his hand. Some of Sansone's recent solo work has incorporated zydeco and swamp-rock influences, but he returned to his country blues inspirations in the Sansone, Fohl and Krown trio, and now he's tapping back into his encyclopedic command of urban blues. It's also a chance for Sansone to reunite with his old friends and bandmates Cabral and Hodges, who backed Sansone in their Colorado days in the early '80s.
"It's always great playing with Johnny, and this is a chance to get back to what we started out doing," says Cabral. "But we've learned a lot in the interim, and now we can look at that material with new eyes and ears." Cabral's and Hodges' multi-instrumental talents open up a number of different configurations for the band; Hodges plays harp as well as guitar, and can swap with Sansone, while Cabral can pick up his sax to add a different shade to the mix, as sax man Kaz Kazanoff did for Big Walter late in his career.
The set list is still taking shape, but includes heavyweight choices like Muddy Waters' "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," Jimmy Rogers' "Walkin' by Myself," the Little Walter double threat of "Mellow Down Easy" and "My Babe," Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years," and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Keep it to Yourself."
Sansone relishes the chance to honor the original soundscape created by such legends. "A lot of the stuff recorded with Muddy was two guitars, and a lot of Little Walter is two guitars with no bass. The interaction on the guitar stuff is really important to the music. There's continuous soloing weaving through the vocals on the lot of the records, and the other guitar player's playing rhythm.
"We won't be clobbering people," he declares. "The approach that I want to take is like Muddy's band -- low volume but high intensity, with smaller amps. We're going for the deep groove of how that stuff used to swing so good."
- Johnny Sansone
- Former bandmates Jumpin' Johnny Sansone (center) and the Iguanas' Joe Cabral (right) and Rod Hodges reunite for Deep Mud, a vintage blues ensemble also featuring guitarist Jonathan Freilich, drummer Doug Garrison and pianist Bob Andrews.