2018 – Sugar Brown
By Phillip Smith; June 16, 2018
Ken Kawashima, a finalist in the 2017 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up in Ohio, studied in Chicago, got his PhD from New York University, and now lives in Toronto. There he teaches East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto and plays the blues. While in the Windy City, where his musical path was shaped, Kawashima was given his nickname Sugar Brown by Chicago bluesman Tail Dragger Jones.
It’s a Blues World (Calling All Blues), Sugar Brown’s third album glows with authenticity. Each of its thirteen original songs has a sense of stewardship and timelessness. Joining Sugar Brown on the studio for this album is special guest and blues guitarist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, a close friend of Brown’s who was instrumental in inspiring him to play blues guitar. The rest of the band is comprised of Michelle Josef (drums), Russ Boswell (upright bass, electric bass), Nichol Robertson (guitar,banjo), Julian Fauth (piano,Farfisa), Julia Narveson (horns and fiddle), Chuck Bucket (drums), and Bill Howard (tambourine, bass drum).
Sugar Brown shares a lesson on the topic of economics, as he sings about everyone scrambling for the same “Lousy Dime”. Robertson’s infectious banjo riff rolls throughout this wonderful song. Accompanied by an exquisite fiddle accompaniment and a beautifully executed piano backing, it’s absolutely flawless. With a Tom Waits-like gusto, Brown suavely sings “What I Know”. The song sweetly rolls in with a horn and harp intro and is threaded with gobs of marvelously twangy guitar. A North Mississippi blues approach is taken with “Out of the Frying Pan“, an intoxicating tune about having nowhere else to go. The circulating rhythm lures me quickly in, and holds me captive for the remainder of the song. It’s terrific.
The retrospective makeover he applies to his music, using vintage technology, encapsulates his work in an era of bygone times, giving it a unique sound. That’s half the attraction to this album. The other half is Sugar Brown’s exemplary songwriting. This album comes highly recommended for Blues enthusiasts.