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Pop Album Review

Interactive, Indulgence-Free Blues and R&B

*** ROD PIAZZA AND THE MIGHTY FLYERS, "Here and Now" Tone-Cool

April 21, 1999|MIKE BOEHM

"The family that plays together, plays together" could be the motto for Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers.

This modern-traditionalist blues institution from Riverside is founded on the considerable talents of singer-bandleader-harmonica man Rod Piazza, and his piano-playing wife, Honey Piazza--along with bassist Bill Stuve, who has been in the band so long he might as well be kin.

The Piazzas write the songs, which are serviceable-to-good takes on a variety of blues and R&B forms. And the husband-and-wife team, plus Rick Holmstrom on guitar, give the band a tremendous troika of soloists. But the hallmark of this group is how well the talent, which also includes drummer Steve Mugalian, is blended--that is, how well they play together.

Piazza, who won a 1998 W.C. Handy Award as blues harmonica player of the year, is a first-rank instrumentalist who would rather work within the ensemble than indulge himself in histrionic flights. Somebody should strap down John Popper, the so-called harmonica virtuoso of Blues Traveler, and make him listen to Rod Piazza records for a week so he might absorb some lessons about the true nature of musicianship.

Listening to the thick yet sprightly tone Piazza generates on "Love Doctor," one suspects it's only a matter of time before the pop world discovers the chromatic harp he plays as the cool new sonic color and texture-generator to replace all those Mellotrons, Chamberlains and sundry other trendy synthesizers.

"Goodbye My Lover" has a good illustration of Piazza's instrumental range, command and inventiveness as his solo break opens with a lowdown bullfrog growl and leaps to piercing whistles that are pretty and soulfully plaintive.

As a singer, Piazza gets the job done, communicating feelings and bringing a conversationally humorous touch. But he isn't a match for two other A-list Southern California singer-harmonica-songwriter triple threats: James Harman and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

"Goodbye My Lover" is in the tradition of New Orleans soul-blues men, but you have to use your imagination to conjure the ideal treatment it might get from an Art or Aaron Neville or a Johnny Adams.

The Piazzas' earthy wit pays off in "First Love," with a series of pithy similes that humorously encapsulate the perils of first love. "First love's like liquor, a little taste and you want some more / And like liquor, when it's gone you're down at the liquor store."

The track is a showcase for Honey Piazza, who romps and boogies all over her keyboard; just as impressive is her work in a supporting role during "Brought Together by the Blues," a celebration of the Piazzas' romance in which she trills and decorates the music without letup, yet remains in the background while her husband and Holmstrom step forward as soloists.

Holmstrom excels in his spotlight number, the bopping instrumental "Spit Shine." His solo moves with the quirky precariousness of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, skittering to the edge of dissonance with surprising note selections, but never taking a pratfall.

The ambling, strutting "Somebody's Fool" best captures the band's ensemble cohesion and confidence; teamwork like this hasn't been seen since Bill Walton's championship run with the Portland Trail Blazers.

If the mark of a great blues band is to write indelible classics that others will feel compelled to cover, "Here and Now" falls short.

But if there's greatness in enlivening the here-and-now with a spirit of enjoyment and expert, interactive musicianship that's free of self-indulgence, the 17th album of Piazza's 34-year career as a professional bluesman fits the description.

* Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers play Friday at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach. 10 p.m. $10. (562) 983-7111.

Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.

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