Not even the casual listener would confuse JOE TURNER'S barroom bark with JOHN JACKSON'S congenial drawl. Yet both singers have at least one thing in common: Each vividly personifies a blues tradition. In Turner's case, it's the boisterous sound of Kansas City nightlife in the '30s: earthy, declamatory blues; infectious, riffing ensembles; joyful, clanking pianos. In Jackson's case, the gentler East Coast Piedmont tradition prevails: a melodic, finger-picking guitar style indebted to countless string bands, fiddlers and banjoists.
Recorded in 1974 and just now released, Turner's album, "Life Ain't Easy," is raucous but right -- an informal yet supremely authoritative blowing session. On it, Turner mightily projects the power and presence few singers in any pop idiom can rival. He gives the title track a persuasively autobiographical reading, and devilishly disguises his amorous intentions on the double-entendre-laced "Plant Your Garden." Throughout, his performances are inspired by Roy Eldridge's sassily muted trumpet refrains, organist Jimmy Robins' cresting choruses, the burly-toned teamwork of trombonist Al Grey and saxophonist Lee Allen (the latter of New Orleans R&B fame), and Ray Brown's supple bass lines.
By contrast, John Jackson is accompanied solely by bassist Bill Morrison on "Deep in the Bottom." Like Jackson's previous recordings, this one at first seems a rather odd anthology, a curious mixture of tunes by W.C. Handy, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Ernest Tubb and Tom T. Hall, among others. But such electicism, in addition to being part of the Piedmont tradition, is a Jackson specialty: He's really a songster at heart.
Jackson's dexterous guitar work -- particularly impressive on Blake's "Diddy Wah Diddy" -- and his engagingly laconic voice, which gives Big Boy Crudup's "That's Alright Mama" a wonderful old- timey flavor, combine to make this album seamlessly enjoyable.
Yet, like Mississippi John Hurt's music, there's something else about Jackson's recordings that defies words. No matter what the tune, no matter how depressing the subject, there's always a heartwarming quality in his music -- a spirit that relects the gentle nature of the man making it. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS JOE TURNER -- Life Ain't Easy (Pablo 2310-883). JOHN JACKSON -- Deep in the Bottom (Rounder Records 2032). THE SHOWS JOE TURNER, Sunday at 1:15 in the Opera House at the Kool Jazz Festival. JOHN JACKSON, Sunday at 5 at the Overlook, Glen Echo, part of the Seventh Annual Walking Folk Festival.