CD Review: The Claudettes

The Claudettes’ debut album, Inferno Piano Plot…HATCHED!, released on Memphis-based Yellow Dog records, finds the duo of blues pianist Johnny “Fingers” Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey making a piano album with uninhibited, wild, exciting and sometimes humorous (check out the song titles and band history) yet deep-rooted Chicago blues. The magic of this duo is their ability to really dig into the Chicago blues while freely infusing an eclectic variety of musical styles, particularly jazz, rhythm & blues, and punk rock (Iguana cites the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets as influences). The result is a very powerful and impassioned album done as only true Chicago blues masters could do it.

[pullquote]In fact, with this album, Iguana could easily inherit Moose’s mantle as the piano wild man of Chicago Blues. [/pullquote]

Johnny Iguana, who wrote all but one of the tunes in this program, has toured and recorded with Junior Wells, Mississippi Heat and the Chicago Blues: A Living History band. He is also featured on albums by Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell and Lil’ Ed Williams.  The legendary Chicago pianist Otis Spann is at the core of his style, but other influences like Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Ramsey Lewis are evident in his playing.  In addition to Spann, Iguana’s piano style also bears comparison to the great Chicago bluesman Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, who was also known to incorporate a variety of influences in his music. In fact, with this album, Iguana could easily inherit Moose’s mantle as the piano wild man of Chicago Blues.  The style of 1920s pianists like bluesman Little Brother Montgomery (whose Tremblin’ Blues is covered here) and early jazzmen like Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller are also present, giving the music a truly unique sound.  Meanwhile, Michael Caskey’s tough, authoritative drumming and percussion provide the rock and punk touches.

ClaudettesRegardless of their influences, Iguana and Caskey approach the music in a very lively and unpredictable way with plenty of improvisation. The mood of the music ranges from wild, intense and spirited to soft, delicate and introspective. The title track is a fast, playful boogie, almost like a wild take on the Charlie Brown/Peanuts theme, while Deep Soul for High Society is reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis with its hard driving jazz sound blended with a healthy dose of R&B. Iguana’s admiration of Otis Spann comes through on the first track, Stumbling Home Satisfied, which is a vigorous blues shuffle, and Serenading the Clean-Up Crew, a fun, atmospheric slow blues, complete with soft snare rolls from Caskey. Iguana’s modern approach to 1920s piano appears on New Orleans Yard Sale (The New 11-Bar Blues) and Tremblin’ Blues.  The latter track is especially interesting because it is both traditional and contemporary.  It channels Little Brother Montgomery’s early blues piano while Caskey provides a marching drumbeat, giving the tune an early 20th Century sound. However, Iguana and Caskey bring so much energy and creativity to the song that it is right at home in the 21st Century.

[pullquote]They have successfully blended a variety of American music styles with Chicago Blues to create a thoroughly satisfying album[/pullquote]

As the Claudettes, Iguana and Caskey have clearly stepped forward to make a musical statement of their own. They have successfully blended a variety of American music styles with Chicago Blues to create a thoroughly satisfying album.  There is much for music lovers, particularly of piano and Chicago Blues, to savor here. A pair like the Claudettes really shows the continued vitality and possibilities of Chicago blues in the 21st Century when performed by musicians who possess skill, deep knowledge and passion for the music. There are no limits for the irrepressible creativity of Iguana and Caskey.

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