Between the Cracks: King Curtis and Champion Jack Dupree – Blues at Montreaux (Atlantic, 1973)

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The main problem with blues jams is that they often drag on too long and can severely strain the tolerance of even the most ardent blues enthusiasts with seemingly endless shuffles and marathon renditions of “Stormy Monday.” However, this is not the case with the blues jam captured on “Blues at Montreux.” In fact, the only problem with this extraordinary and priceless performance is that it doesn’t last long enough.

Recorded at the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1971, “Blues at Montreaux” was the brainchild of two Atlantic Records execs who thought it would be fun to see what would happen if they spontaneously assembled an all-star band fronted by the unlikely combination of Champion Jack Dupree, an earthy blues piano player and singer, and King Curtis, the undisputed soul saxophone hero of the time. The result was an inspired, fun-filled performance that undoubtedly exceeded the wildest expectations of everyone involved.

Much of what makes “Blues at Montreaux” so special is the playful musical interaction between Dupree and Curtis, who seem to be having the times of their lives. Many of Dupree’s lyrics are impishly ribald, and throughout the album King Curtis never fails to find the ideal phrase to emphasize them. With just a few well chosen notes or a suggestive honk, he makes his sax do everything but talk while expressing sly innuendo that speaks volumes. For his part, Dupree is obviously amazed and delighted by King Curtis’ masterful playing and can be heard throughout the album whooping and shouting his approval. In the middle of one solo he reverently declares, “Boy, you the Lip!” Dupree also provides some amusing patter between songs, and at one point introduces guitarist Cornell Dupree as “Dupree Junior.” While the audience can be heard chuckling, he goes on to insinuate that it’s quite possible because “I used to move around a lot…and in sixty years I coulda did a lot of damage!”

Five of the six songs on “Blues at Montreaux” are credited to Curtis and Dupree, but they are essentially standard blues vehicles that allow the members of this virtuoso band to show off their considerable chops. The one pure original is the opening tune, Dupree’s classic “Junker’s Blues,” which he first recorded in the early fifties. It wryly tells the story of how Dupree gets busted for smoking reefer but is ultimately released when the judge tries some of it for himself and likes it. Dupree triumphantly relates this with the line, “The judge took a hit off my reefer/And sang, ‘Jack Dupree you are free!'” For the most part, however, Dupree’s lyrics seem to be a patchwork of lines lifted from dozens of songs, but he does it so expertly that it doesn’t detract from the performance in the least.

Overall, the playing on “Blues at Montreaux” is loose and unpretentious, yet superlatively skillful. Champion Jack Dupree tickles the ivories with reckless abandon and King Curtis amply demonstrates why he’s considered a saxophone legend. The rhythm section of Cornell Dupree, drummer Oliver Jackson, and bassist Jerry Jemmott is consistently solid and often spectacular given the fact that this band was literally thrown together on a moment’s notice. Jemmott in particular deserves special commendation for devising as many variations on a walking bass line as is humanly possible in the space of forty minutes.

Hardcore blues fans will absolutely love this album, and even those who can take the blues or leave it will almost certainly find it impossible not to get caught up in the effusive spirit of “Blues at Montreaux.” This album is a masterpiece and well worth the expenditure of a few of your hard earned entertainment dollars!

Wayne Wayne