THE RECENT death of Muddy Waters at age 68 was a dramatic reminder that we are rapidly losing the first generation of electric bluesmen.
In fact, their immediate heirs are already in their fifties. B. B. King is 57; Jimmy Johnson is 54 and Albert Collins is 52. All three blues veterans have new albums out, and neither age nor history has slowed them down.
B. B. King recorded the 41st album of his career on his 57th birthday in New York last fall. "Blues 'n" Jazz" (MCA 5413) is one of King's best, for he plays 10 perfectly picked songs backed by a superb 14-piece big band. Jazz stars such as Arnett Cobb, Woody Shaw, Major Holley, Warren Chiasson and Edgar Synigal supply a crisp swing when they accompany and show off their blues instincts when they solo.
Just the same, King clearly dominates the album. His buttery voice has never been warmer or more subtle; his stinging guitar work has never been sparer or sharper.
The two best songs were written by the great Louis Jordan, a jump blues band leader of the '40s. King's new single is Jordan's 1947 tune, "Inflation Blues," with a guitar introduction appropriately thrifty for our current recession. King's thoughtful pauses and pinpoint phrasing make a few notes go a long way. Behind the comic lyrics is a trace of anger at government help for the rich and neglect for the poor, with Cobb's blustery, Texas blues tenor sax solo extending the implications. "Heed My Warning" is a wonderfully comic cautionary story.
The album also boasts four fine originals from King, all about women who have done him wrong. Each tale of woe sets up a guitar solo that distills the pain in a few quivering notes, while a remake of his 1952 No. 1 rhythm and blues hit, "You Know I Love You," reveals how much King's voice has deepened and thickened. Rudolph Toombs' "Teardrops From My Eyes" serves as a launching pad for some imaginative jazz-blues on vibes, guitar, bass and piano. King is scheduled to return to the Wax Museum Aug. 17.
Jimmy Johnson is the most exciting new blues performer to emerge in the past five years. Though well-seasoned as a second guitarist behind Otis Rush and Jimmy Dawkins, Johnson only released his debut album in 1979. His second album, "North/South" (Delmark DS-647), expands on the promise of the first and proves that Johnson is a major talent as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.
As a former soul singer, he brings a flexible sense of dynamics to the blues. His songs are shaped dramatically -- rising to climaxes and falling to lulls with the transition maneuvered by his expressive, rock-inflected guitar solos.
Johnson also is an ambitious blues songwriter, reaching beyond the traditional topics of wine, women and money. Instead, he tackles the contradictory feelings that southern blacks often had about moving north. On "Track to Run" and "Talking 'Bout Chicago," Johnson contrasts his farmboy, southern dreams of trading a cotton sack for a Cadillac with his street-wise lessons in the North about just staying alive. Just the same, he admits he'll never desert Chicago, because "it's my home."
Johnson also addresses the conflict between religion and the blues. On "Sang a Song in Heaven," he describes a dream in which he dies and tries to sing the blues in heaven but just doesn't fit in. On "Country Preacher," he draws an analogy between himself comforting people with the blues in a bar and a preacher comforting people with the gospel in church. Johnson is one of the few singers who could express such paradoxical feelings in the same song. Without sacrificing any intensity, he allows a bit of vulnerability into his voice, as if implying he doesn't have all the answers. Where his voice leaves off, his eloquent guitar picks up, telling of the pain and confusion.
Albert Collins, who comes to the Wax Museum June 3, is one of the flashiest guitarists in blues today. Using an eccentric minor key tuning with a capo clamped halfway up the neck of his Telecaster, every note Collins plays is high and piercing. His signature "cool sound" is all over his new album, "Don't Lose Your Cool" (Alligator AL 4730).
Though not a great singer, Collins is a fun storyteller, and this album has some good stories to frame his spectacular solos. He extends Percy Mayfield's heartbroken tale, "My Mind Is Trying to Leave You," for nearly eight minutes. Chris Foreman's organ and Abb Locke's sax sustain the melancholy attachments, while Collins' guitar tries to wrench free. "Broke" is a comic monologue about the vicissitudes of poverty and "When a Guitar Plays the Blues" explains Collins' profession.
In the end, though, it's the guitar that does the talking, and it does that most powerfully on the instrumental title cut, a remake of an early Collins' single. Collins attacks the catchy little riff with so many different notes, textures and speeds that it's clear how he has influenced guitarists from Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter to Johnny Copeland and Stevie Ray Vaughn.