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Phil Upchurch: Rhapsody and Blues

For Chicago guitarist Phil Upchurch, a veteran of more than 1,000 recordings, the chance to perform with full orchestra meant a crowning touch on an incredible career. Rhapsody & Blues (Go Jazz GoJ 6035 2; 57:36), recorded with the specially named Phil-Harmonic Orchestra, gives us a chance to listen in on that concert of a lifetime, which turned out to be quite a party. The presence of seriously big strings and horns has a transforming effect on familiar blues-to-jazz styles, enlarging and highlighting some of the more intimate corners and doodles in Upchurch’s guitar work. On “516,” for example, larger-than-life horn swells accentuate the guitarist’s stinging licks, while swinging strings create a bustling, vibrant foundation. Lighter support is found on “Whatever Happened to the Blues,” with orchestral tension and lift rendering the slow-burning blues melody at once smooth and dramatic. From gentle pieces like “Name of the Game,” to the revved-up R&B of “Everything Is Everything,” Upchurch hits the perfect balance, taking advantage of the improvisational freedom of the concert stage, while respecting the structure of the orchestral environment and playing off its precision.

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