When Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary series titled The Blues was aired in 2003, apart from all the usual suspects such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon etc, one unexpected musician was also mentioned: Jimi Hendrix. To any layperson Hendrix might seem like an odd choice; what would the composer of classic pop-rock songs “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady” and “The Wind Cries Mary” have in common with the blues? The answer is obvious – everything. Because behind all the electronic gadgetry, the sci-fi distortion, and wall of feedback, was a guitarist whose main inspiration was deeply anchored in the blues, more so than many people might think (those many people being predominately white. Blacks knew all along).
Take “Foxy Lady” for instance, the opening riff to which is based on what is known as a ‘flatted fifth,’ or “the devil’s chord,” a form of tuning that has been around for centuries, banned by the Church, but adopted by blues artists, which isn’t surprising considering African musicians’ penchant for distortion in their playing. In other words, “Purple Haze” is little more than Muddy Waters run through a stack of Marshall Amps.
Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix was released in conjunction with the film series, and one which probably had a lot of long time Hendrix fans scratching their heads. 1994 saw the release of Hendrix: Blues, a fine if somewhat flawed collection of impromptu jams and live recordings designed at highlighting a side of Jimi that had often been ignored. But with only two previously unreleased tracks (with the rest collated from existed albums), it’s no wonder that Jimi’s more hard core followers questioned the actual merits of such a compilation in the first place. But if one can pretend for a moment that this CD consists of entirely ‘new’ material, then Presents the Blues is actually a pretty decent listen.
First up is “Red House,” recorded December 1966 in London, and was part of Hendrix’s debut Are You Experienced? So no surprises here. Still, it’s an essential recording for anyone who is yet unfamiliar (hard as that is to believe) with the guitarist’s mastery of electric blues. “Voodoo Chile” was first issued on Jimi’s third LP Electric Ladyland, so again, not much in the revelations department. Nevertheless, this late night/early morning jam with Mitch Mitchell (drums), Steve Winwood (Hammond organ) and Jack Cassady (bass) is absolutely indispensable, and provides further evidence of Hendrix as one of the greatest bluesmen of his generation. Another Ladyland track, Earl King’s “Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)” is where blues and rock cross paths (including a fiery wah wah solo), while “Hear My Train A Comin’” is just plain ugly. And I don’t mean that in a good way. There are far superior versions doing the rounds, so one has to wonder why the compilers picked what is essentially a rehearsal and not say, one of the far better studio recordings that no doubt remain hidden in the vaults.
“It’s Too Bad” is another disappointing track. Recorded in February 1969 with Buddy Miles (drums) and Duane Hitchings (organ), this somewhat lengthy jam is intriguing but ultimately remains one for the serious collector. Not so “Country Blues,” a sumptuous jam where the main riff bears more than a slight resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf’s “44.” The enjoyable “My Friend” will already be familiar to long time fans, while Hendrix’s solo rendition of “Midnight Lightning” (from South Saturn Delta) closes out the album in authentic blues fashion.
But it’s the two previously unreleased numbers that will get devotees handing over their money (if reluctantly I might add). “Georgia Blues,” with Lonnie Youngblood on sax and vocals, finds Hendrix stepping back from centre stage, playing the sort of guitar he might have had he not relocated to London with Chas Chandler almost three years earlier, and “Blue Window,” a spur-of-the-moment jam with Buddy Miles and his band, from March 1969. It’s hardly going to alter the way people may perceive Hendrix, although it’s fun to hear him play with a larger ensemble of musicians (organ, saxophones and trumpet).
For the uninitiated, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix offers a whole new perspective on the late guitarist’s legacy, proving that there was more to Jimi than just “Hey Joe” and “All Along The Watchtower.” BB King once remarked that had Hendrix concentrated solely on the blues, he would have become one of the finest blues guitarists of them all. John Lee Hooker also held him in high esteem. Praises which would surely have made Hendrix very proud indeed.