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Carlos del Junco

BLUES MONGREL  •  Carlos del Junco

The harmonica has developed something of a dicey rep. Clueless audience members playing amateur harp along with the band, tired revivals of yet another purist Little Walter imitator, and Blues Traveler-style wanking tend to make us forget that in the proper hands it is an instrument that in one moment can create a highly emotive cry (see: Junior Wells), and in another a breathtaking (no pun intended) saxophone-style solo (see: Toots Thielmans).

Cuban-born, Canadian-bred, harmonica player Carlos del Junco is fully capable of both types of moments. On Blues Mongrel, Little Walter's "Blues With a Feeling" and Sonny Boy Williams' "Nine Below Zero" prove that he is, to coin a cliche, steeped in the tradition. But if that were the sum of his efforts he would be just another in the current long line of purist revivalists whose well-intentioned efforts are contributing to the blues becoming moribund.

Luckily, del Junco has no interest in merely reproducing the sounds of the past, wonderful as they are. On this (as on his previous releases), he and cohort, guitarist Kevin Briet, expand on the jazz and country elements of the blues that are so often overlooked by the curators of the tradition. Like his mentor, Howard Levy of the Flecktones, del Junco is capable of playing chromatically on a standard blues-style harmonica. For the musically unschooled, this means that he can play all the notes on an instrument that was designed to play just some of them. Fortunately for us he uses this facility for good rather than evil, in the form of tastefully melodic solos--like the one on "Let's Mambo," a tune that celebrates the land of his ancestors. He is one of those rare musicians whose ideas are completely unhampered by the limitations of the instrument and, more crucial, whose ideas are unceasingly interesting.

He is joined on a virtually equal footing by Kevin Breit from John And The Sisters, who, after two years of lucrative restraint in Nora Jones' band, is unleashed here. Like his Junco partner (sorry, couldn't resist), Breit's definition of blues expands to include chicken pickin', be-bop, and exuberant humor. His five compositions provide perfect vehicles for guitar and harmonica excursions that range from joyful to heartbreaking, celebrating the full array of what roots music has to offer.

Blues Mongrel pulls off the difficult trick of proving that music can be simultaneously sophisticated and raw, technically adept and highly emotional, serious as a heart attack and as much fun as a circus clown. Thanks to artists like Carlos del Junco and Kevin Breit, the blues will continue to live and breathe for the foreseeable future. • Michael Ross

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