Listen to their debut album, And Still I Rise, or witness a live performance by the Heritage Blues Orchestra and you’ll recognize this group as something breathtakingly new even as they honor old African-American musical traditions.
From the first of the twelve tracks on the album—Junior Mack’s propulsive rendition of Son House’s Clarksdale Moan—Heritage Blues Orchestra unapologetically stomps onto the scene and digs in with both heels, taking us from Bill Sims’ hard-shuffling version of the immortal Muddy Waters classic, Catfish Blues, to the solemn dirge of Chaney Sims’ interpretation of Leadbelly’s Go Down Hannah, to the magnificent three-part harmonies against a slippery slide guitar in their head-nodding version of Get Right Church.
The group is driven by the powerful rhythms of Grammy-awarding winning blues drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith; buttressed by the churning, precise and percussive rhythms of harmonica virtuoso, Frenchman Vincent Bucher; and set ablaze with some of New York City’s heaviest horn players who have worked with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Sting and Springsteen.
Heritage Blues Orchestra also boasts contributions from Bruno Wilhelm, the group’s highly esteemed tenor saxophonist and horn arranger. A native of France, Wilhelm is influenced by an extensive palette of jazz styles. Whether with ethereal musings or hard-hitting section work, his arrangements punctuate every song they touch.
This, combined with Bill, Chaney and Junior’s collective history in jazz, R&B and gospel, helps articulate and underscore the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s striking voice. At the heart of the group is a broad spectrum of the blues and the longstanding musical mingling between America and Europe that brings together African-American music, Modern Jazz and Western European harmony.
Nowhere is the breadth of Heritage Blues Orchestra’s vision and reach better evidenced than on the album’s closing piece, Hard Times. This song, in 3 movements, demonstrates it all: the traditional call-and-response between a lone voice and guitar; a bewitching horn composition peppered with Miles Davis’ A Silent Way; and a final transition to a roof-raising funk jam that leaps out and shoves you onto the dance floor.
Their loving celebration of tradition gives rise to a new adventure in music with a singular sound.