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Traditional Jazz & New Orleans - Released March 1, 1976 | Jazzline


Jazz - Released January 1, 1983 | New Rounder

Why so much of what pianist/vocalist James Booker recorded in the 1970s didn't surface until the '90s is a mystery, but that's secondary compared to the greatness routinely presented on this CD. It contains nine Booker selections that he performed at the 1977 Boogie Woogie & Ragtime Piano Contest held in Zurich. His relentless, driving style, ability to switch from a hard-hitting tune to a light, soft one without skipping a beat, and his wild mix of sizzling keyboard licks and bemused, manic vocals are uniformly impressive. Piano Wizard a bit short for a CD at 37 minutes, but it has so much flamboyant music and singing that it shouldn't be missed. ~ Ron Wynn

Jazz - Released January 1, 1983 | New Rounder

One of the great blues albums of the early '80s, Classified captures the legendary New Orleans pianist James Booker not long before his premature death at the age of 43 on November 8, 1983. Recorded in a series of sometimes problematic sessions in 1982 -- producer Scott Billington details them in his terrific liner notes on the 2013 reissue of the record, which is remixed and expanded -- Classified appeared just a few months before Booker's death, so it's hard not to read it as something of a final statement. That said, Booker's recording career was, shall we say, erratic, consisting of many sessions and live records but only a handful of full-fledged, big-budget albums along the lines of Classified (1976's Junco Partner and the 1977 live set New Orleans Piano Wizard are the only ones that qualify). The pianist didn't intend this to be some kind of grand statement, but Billington was intent on getting a good, solid, New Orleans R&B record from Booker, pushing him through sessions that were often difficult and unfocused. That all changed on the last day, when Booker arrived fresh and recharged and proceeded to plow through a bunch of solo performances that form the bulk of the album and are even more prominent on the reissue. A few full-band songs followed but that was it -- Booker took his $3000 check and left the studio, not to be seen again for several weeks. What he left Billington with is as close to a definitive studio album as we could get from the wildly inventive pianist. In the expanded edition, there is more room for detours and Booker takes them, playing "Warsaw Concerto" and "Theme from the Godfather," which gives a great idea of his sense of melody and space, but elsewhere this is firmly rooted in New Orleans, and his takes on "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Lonely Avenue," "All Around the World," and a Professor Longhair Medley of "Tipitina" and "Bald Head," all showcase his idiosyncrasies; how he simultaneously builds on tradition while playing with it. All this was present on the original incarnation of Classified, but in its expanded 2013 edition, there's simply more space to showcase every one of James Booker's quirks, and that freedom is why the album remains the definitive Booker LP -- it's just even more definitive in this incarnation. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine