Graded on a Curve: Johnny Iguana,
Johnny Iguana’s
Chicago Spectacular!

You may know Johnny Iguana as the founder, pianist and chief songwriter for the Chicago-based indie-blues act The Claudettes, but before that he was the keyboardist for Windy City blues giant Junior Wells. Additionally, playing with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Eddy Clearwater, he’s an undisputed purveyor of the blues’ uncut essence. This reality gets driven home a dozen times on Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!, wherein he conjures a massive sound from the ivories as he is joined by a sturdy crew of the city’s blues survivors, amongst them Billy Boy Arnold on vocals and harmonica and Lil’ Ed on vocals and guitar. The CD is out now on Delmark Records, a sure sign of quality.

Chicago Spectacular!’s cover is adorned with the additional descriptor A grand and upright celebration of Chicago Blues piano, a statement borne out through eight fresh interpretations of blues classics, most all of them with a Windy City connection, but with four original Iguana compositions (credited to his birth name Brian Berkowitz) diversifying the whole, all instrumentals and all familiar from the output of The Claudettes.

The breadth derives from the instrumental scheme as well as compositionally, with the originals featuring a distinct lineup of Bill Dickens on bass and Michael Caskey of The Claudettes on drums. Notably, guitar is absent on these cuts as they can occasionally insinuate pop-jazz piano trio grooving, but substantially heavier; however, as Bill Dahl mentions in his liner notes for the set, Mose Allison was an inspiration for the soloing in “Hammer and Tickle.” Still, there’s enough post-boogie-woogie oomph in the cut to remind me a bit of Pinetop Perkins’ later work.

Along with its title evincing a humorous side, “Land of Precisely Three Dances” hits a sweet spot between fleetness and stomp, its outburst of handclaps delivering the icing on the cake. Furthermore, the name “Big Easy Women” underscores a New Orleans feel that perseveres even as the momentum and sheer forcefulness rise to a striking plateau (Iguana’s love of punk rock a la Minutemen, Wire, and Hüsker Dü is readily apparent).

Wildest of all is how “Motorhome” was inspired by the work of Raymond Scott. You may know Scott from the cartoon soundtrack staple “Powerhouse,” which happens to open Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, the 1993 retrospective CD that hipped many (including this writer) to the pianist, composer, bandleader, and electronic instrument pioneer’s existence. Interestingly, Iguana’s uncle Steve Berkowitz worked on that disc as an A&R man at Columbia, and it’s the release that introduced his nephew to the work of Scott, as well.

This Raymond Scott connection, the punk thrust, and that eternally smooth operator Mose Allison; it’s all worth mentioning to drive home the range of influence on display here, but really, the greater achievement is the cohesiveness of these originals and how they enhance and elevate Chicago Spectacular! beyond the realms of a mere tribute project.

The spotlight on this chosen subject (familiar territory for Delmark) gets further distinguished by an unusual level of thoughtfulness, far greater than is the norm for such an endeavor, the attention focused on the piano greats of Chicago blues, but celebrating them by tapping into a deep reservoir of vocal and guitar talent, as Iguana has the keyboard covered.

Opening cut “44 Blues” features hearty singing from John Primer, who notably played in Muddy Waters’ last band and worked extensively with Magic Slim, as well as cutting his own records, but the most immediately remarkable component is that booming piano (the bursts of guitar shrapnel from Bob Margolin, another Muddy associate, are also worthy of note). This was a conscious strategy on Iguana’s part as he eschewed a bass player on the cover material to better evoke, per Dahl’s notes, the aura of vintage blues, where the bass lines regularly derived from the pianist’s left hand.

Although a Roosevelt Sykes composition, the stated inspiration for “44 Blues” is Memphis Slim’s late ’50s recording with the lynchpin of Chicago blues Willie Dixon, who composed the next of the cover selections, “Down in the Bottom.” If it’s sheer piano thunder one desires, it doesn’t get any heavier than this one, which also features Primer, this time adding guitar, and is inspired by Howlin’ Wolf’s ’61 version of the song with Johnny Jones at the bench.

The next cut, “You’re an Old Lady,” is slightly more relaxed in atmosphere, fitting because it’s a Sonny Boy Williamson song, but specifically, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, not Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, the men sometimes confused, as both were harmonica blowers. But the pianist being paid tribute here is Big Maceo Merriweather, a key ’40s Windy City guy, but this sorta takes a back seat to the track’s guest artist on vocals and harp, Billy Boy Arnold, who debuted on record in 1953 and is described as Chicago’s first homegrown bluesman.

And he’s in vibrant form here, also contributing vocals to the closing reading of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hot Dog Mama,” with this choice highlighting the undersung pianist Joshua Altheimer. Preceding it in the sequence is another Sonny Boy Williamson tune, “Stop Breaking Down,” though the inspiration here is Junior Wells’ version from the 1970 album South Side Blues Jam, with featured the prolific pianist Otis Spann.

With Matthew Skoller on vocals and harmonica, Billy Flynn on guitar and Kenny Smith on drums (the latter two also contribute to “You’re an Old Lady” and “Hot Dog Mama”), “Stop Breaking Down” exemplifies the mature but still tough Chi-town blues sound of the late ’60s and ’70s. But the biggest combo punch of Windy City action offers Lil’ Ed (noted leader of the Imperials) on vocals and guitar to grapple first with Spann’s “Burning Fire” and then Elmore James’ inexhaustible burner “Shake Your Moneymaker,” with the pianist in tribute here Johnny “Big Moose” Walker.

Ultimately the record’s biggest surprise is a take of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane” with Phillip-Michael Scales’ guitar and soulful vocals elevating the whole. Iguana’s piano is lithe but heavy as ever, with the CD’s back cover explaining how he broke the hammer assemblies of Shirk Studios’ vintage 1920 upright piano four times; backing up this story is his bleeding hand on the front cover. But hey, the sound of Iguana’s playing is all the proof one needs.

For those curious into his inspirations, Dahl profiles the bunch in an accompanying foldout poster that includes illustrations by Daniel Vincent Bigelow. It’s another class gesture, though the strongest thread of appreciation throughout Chicago Spectacular! is how Iguana isn’t a style copyist and that he never takes the sophisto route. Instead, he’s a righteous pounder and a passionate fan of the blues, which in combination, is a truly splendid thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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