Album Review: Paul Oscher — Cool Cat

Oscher may be Brooklyn-born, but his vocal delivery suggests he’s from down Texas or Louisiana way. His years spent as a valued sideman for Muddy Waters and Louisiana Red almost certainly influenced his blues style. Cool Cat finds him comfortably exploring a variety of American musical idioms, all from the perspective of a musician immersed in the blues. The album opener “Money Makin’ Woman” has a loping, piano-centered New Orleans style that recalls Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Fats Domino. Elsewhere Oscher focuses more on traditional blues and jazz styles. Lyrically, Oscher breaks no new ground; for his subject matter he colors well inside the lines. But the album’s tight, unadorned instrumentation and production are free of filigree; Cool Cat avoids even the slightest whiff of a blues-rock approach.

Oscher’s endearingly sloppy guitar work on “Hide Out Baby” provides both an introduction for Mike Schermer’s ace solo and a nice contrast to the lead guitarist’s clean style. Later in the song when he moves back to harmonica – his first instrument – Oscher is on more solid ground. And on “Work That Stuff,” Oscher deftly explores the expression that the harmonica can convey when it’s in the right hands. The phrase is often applied metaphorically, but here Oscher truly does make the instrument speak.

The loose “unison” vocals of Oscher’s reading of Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” subtly evoke thoughts of field hollers. Russel Lee guests on a spoken word intro and Oscher’s country blues “Ain’t That a Man.” Miss Lavelle White duets on the delightfully saucy “Dirty Dealing Mama.” “On the Edge” is pure jazz.

The centerpiece of Cool Cat, though, is the title track. The piece exists in two versions: the first is a “jazz quartet” arrangement – equal parts New Orleans and uptown soul jazz – redolent of NRBQ. And the set ends with a nine minutes-plus version of “Cool Cat,” featuring Lisa Leuschner on vocals near its end. It’s a treat, and its near-slickness provides a pleasing stylistic counterpoint to the more rough-hewn blues-based tunes on this varied collection.