The title is bound to confuse (and possibly annoy) some blues purists. Except for a handful of straight blues numbers – including one of the most heartfelt T-Bone Walker tributes ever in "Duke's Mood" – Duke Robillard Plays Blues: The Rounder Years is mostly a rock-oriented anthology drawn from the post-Roomful of Blues but pre-Fabulous Thunderbirds stage of Robillard's career. No bonus tracks or previously unissued takes – just reissued material culled from four albums released on Rounder between 1983 and 1991. (Note that Robillard's "Rounder Years" also produced some fantastic swing music, but you won't find any of it here since it's been allocated to the sister compilation Duke Robillard Plays Jazz: The Rounder Years.) The '80s were an interesting decade for Robillard, as he took on a more stripped-down, roots rock (but still bluesy) approach with his trio, the Pleasure Kings, and then headed into that contemporary blues-rock zone often associated with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Duke Robillard’s won a reputation as one of finest guitarists in blues, but this disc also displays his command of rock ‘n’ roll, country, and jazz balladry. The latter drives his duet with country star Pam Tillis, "I’ll Never Be Free," which plays off their easy vocal interplay, Robillard’s classic picking, and his band’s swinging drive. It’s also a pleasure to hear him singing and slinging guitars with blueswoman Debbie Davies on the chugging shuffle "How Long Has It Been." But the best moments may be Robillard’s incendiary solos, like when he uncorks his Stratocaster in the middle of "Deep Inside," matching his lyrics’ cry of aching devotion with a hailstorm of quivering bent notes and brightly snapped strings in sharp, stinging phrases. Three songs later he’s playing in a twang and tremolo style like a Texas roadhouse veteran. In any context, what comes from Robillard’s nimble fingers and open mind is the sound of a master at work.
Duke Robillard pays homage to T-Bone Walker with this collection of swing, big band and blues songs. The bubbly and bouncy "Lonesome Woman Blues" has a be-bop Count Basie feeling as his supporting players are given brief solos to shine, particularly the horn section. There is far more substance and style to this approach than a rehashed run-through à la Brian Setzer. This fluidity continues, albeit a bit slower in tempo with the swinging "T-Bone Shuffle" which carries the same head-bobbing groove. Here the horns lead the way but Robillard makes his presence felt on guitar near the homestretch, and throughout the stellar "Pony Tail." The barroom blues and drum brushes on "Love Is a Gamble" takes things down to a creepy crawl, bringing to mind Dr. John or Delbert McClinton. An early favorite has to be the rousing and toe-tapping "Alimony Blues," an indication that Robillard wants to pay tribute in the right way by nailing each song beautifully.
Recorded during his five year "vacation" from Duke Ellington's orchestra, this Johnny Hodges set features his band sticking mostly to standards. With trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, trombonist Lawrence Brown, baritonist Harry Carney, pianist Call Cobbs, or Richie Powell, bassist John Williams, drummer Louis Bellson, and either Jimmy Hamilton or John Coltrane (who unfortunately does not solo) on tenor, Hodges had a particularly strong group. High points include "On the Sunny Side of the Street," the title track and a seven-song ballad medley.
Duke Ellington recorded for Brunswick from 1926 to 1931, the period in which his great talent and great orchestra first flowered, whether the band was recording under his own name or such pseudonyms as the Washingtonians or the Jungle Band. The earliest recordings are highlighted by the presence of trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton, whose brilliant work with plunger mutes for vocal effects did much to define the early sound–which, in turn, rapidly evolved and expanded with the additions of Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams. While the band's repertoire included many blues and popular songs, its distinctive identity emerges from early renditions of such trademark pieces as "East St. Louis Toodle-O," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," and "Mood Indigo." By the end of the period covered in this set, Ellington's ambitious later suites–some of them CD-length–are portended in the elegant extended composition "Creole Rhapsody," his clearly superior contribution to the symphonic jazz movement.