Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's tough-minded approach to the blues, country, Cajun, and jazz insures a minimum of nonsense and a maximum of variety, while his virtuosity on the guitar and fiddle insures the highest standards. Nonetheless, Brown's 1997 album is a landmark for the 73-year-old picker who won a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award. All 13 tunes on Gate Swings find Brown working with his regular road quartet plus a 13-piece horn section, enabling him to prove that Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton have been as important to his music as any bluesman or Creole fiddler. Gate Swings includes tunes by all three of those big-band leaders as well as compositions by Buddy Johnson, Percy Mayfield, Louis Jordan, and Brown himself, and they all swing with the massive force that only a big horn section can muster. Brown has leaned in this direction before, but Gate Swings is special, because it features the horn arrangements of Wardell Quezergue, an alumnus of the Dave Bartholomew band who arranged many of the best New Orleans R&B hits in the '60s and '70s.
John Lee and Gerry Brown's Blue Note debut pairs the duo with producer Skip Drinkwater, who strips their fusion approach to its bare essentials to create a moody, deeply funky sound that smolders with intensity. Bolstered by session aces spanning from Motown studio great Wah Wah Watson to Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine, Mango Sunrise burns as slow and steady as a stick of dynamite – while Drinkwater's production is undeniably slick, it also eliminates the superfluous sounds and technical wankery that undermine so much of Lee and Brown's subsequent output.
To call the multitalented Gatemouth Brown, a mainstay of the Texas music scene for over half a century, a bluesman would be inaccurate. Not completely wrong, for Brown's influence on Texas blues has been enormous, but certainly not the whole picture. On Blackjack, Brown (who sings and plays harmonica and a plethora of stringed instruments, from guitar to viola) goes from blues ("Chickenshift") to jazz ("Honey Boy," with a nice drum solo from David Peters) to country ("Dark End of the Hallway") and back again. Not every musician can handle this kind of variety, but Brown makes it work, whether it's the straight-ahead blues of "Here Am I" or "Street Corner" (which has a great harmonica intro), the Cajun-inflected "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," or the jazz-blues feel of "Tippin' In." It's easy to see, or rather to hear, why Brown has been so influential: every track on Blackjack is performed with the deft assurance of a master.