After a flurry – some might say a flood – of releases by Freddie Mitchell in late spring and early summer, Derby Records took a break from overexposing their star saxophonist over the past few months to give listeners a chance to recover… relax.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

We can only hope during that time Mr. Mitchell took the opportunity to think up a new approach when it came to arranging his records because with so many coming out one after another there’s no way to disguise the fact that they’ve begun to sound far too similar for our comfort.


Lives Up On The Hill
Well, so much for hoping… as this starts off with all of the things that makes Freddie Mitchell’s records so frustrating at times, starting with the tinkling piano clattering away on the extreme treble keys until your eyeballs shimmy in their sockets.

It’s distinctive of course, something he could – and probably tried to – take out a patent on it but it wouldn’t have been necessary because no other musician in their right mind would intentionally choose to base half of their musical identity on eight keys on the piano that most never touched.

But while the early focus on that harsh sound doesn’t bode well for Roll ‘Em Boogie, using it early on like this also winds up not being the worst thing to do because it gets it out of the way, giving us the one thing we’re dreading and then discarding it quickly to jump into the good stuff.

When Mitchell’s saxophone comes in at the thirty second mark the contrast to what preceded it – that tinny piano and a plucked bass and hand-claps – makes it jump out more and you at least get some idea why Mitchell kept returning to it over and over to set his own horn apart. Of course like a card trick once you see it done the first time it loses any sense of anticipation after that, but it’s to his credit that here he actually makes it worth the wait by not compromising on the payoff.

That’s always been the maddening thing about him though… Freddie Mitchell is a really good sax player, but when he’s constantly choosing to revive older songs then affixing them with arrangements that straitjacket him, limiting his opportunity to impress listeners with each record, it’s easy to see why he didn’t quite make the leap to star, even at the height of the tenor sax revolution.

But with this record he’s got a good song from which to take off on in Roll ‘Em Pete, the classic pairing between Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson dating back to the late 1930’s that launched the boogie-woogie craze and was arguably the first real sign of the rock ‘n’ roll on the horizon, giving this record a much deeper connection to the same constituency Mitchell was trying to reach now.

Well Alright Then
Essentially Mitchell is not replicating Turner’s vocal lines, the method he’d taken on most of the remakes of the poppier material where it was his sax being tasked with handling the singer’s job, but rather he’s using Johnson’s piano as his guide. That’s entirely welcome here because not only was Pete Johnson one of the best ever at what he did, but also because it ensures we don’t get an overdose of Mitchell’s over-matched pianist trying to imitate Johnson while using just his right hand to explore the extreme end of the keyboard.

Maybe this approach means you won’t pick up on the connection to the Turner song very easily but it doesn’t matter much because it’s not the sudden “Ah-hah!” moment, “I recognize this!”, that sells Roll ‘Em Boogie, but rather the gutsy performance Mitchell delivers once he kicks things into high gear.

After the group horns are carrying the early stretch pretty well, Mitchell steps out at the midway point and starts churning nicely, his tone is beefy while emphasizing the rhythm and yet he never loses the thread of the melody in the process. The other horns keep riffing nicely behind him, the drummer is locked in and even the wayward pianist is chipping in with some worthwhile touches while the screams in the background add the right atmosphere.

Maybe most impressively Mitchell’s solo is tied so closely to the group horn display that preceded it that unless you’re listening closely for the transition you won’t realize where it emerged from. Maybe that sounds like something of a diss – how good can it be if you don’t notice it? – but it actually shows that the overall arrangement for once was fully integrated for the entire band rather than being a series of standalone performances loosely tied together.

Of course there is one other thing to consider which is rather unfortunate and that’s the timing of this. Had this record come out just a year earlier it’d have made a much bigger impact since the sax instrumental craze was still in full swing, but what a difference a year makes as now these records are more or less sonic interludes for the greater range of tracks that are dominating the rock landscape now. We have more vocal groups and female singers as well as wider array of solo male stars giving us everything from party anthems to introspective ballads, while boastful throw-downs share space with songs of wailing emotional despair, even guitar instrumentals are popping up on the radar from time to time and as such the space on the shelf for honking grinding sax instrumentals has gradually been diminished.

It’s a shame too because this would’ve been the kind of record might’ve helped to keep this style at the forefront just as it began to wane, whereas now it has to be content with achieving more niche appeal.


Sends My Mellow Soul
Because he rarely comes up with original material and thanks to his over-reliance on structurally limiting, and often aesthetically grating, arrangements on his remakes, there’s a tendency to view Freddie Mitchell with a little bit of suspicion around here.

But while his shortcomings are indeed cause of ongoing concern, if only because the records’ failings seem so obvious from the outside, it tends to overshadow the fact that on the whole he’s been a valuable contributor to rock’s evolution.

No, he’s not leading any charge up the hill by being particularly innovative and though he’s had his share of hits to keep rock’s commercial prospects strong he’s not backing that up with any long term influence, but there are worse things to be than a really prolific minor headliner.

Roll ‘Em Boogie marks his fourth “very good” record this calendar year and while the sheer number of sides he’s put out during that time means he still manages to come out as below average with his output over the past nine months, it also shows that at his best he’s somebody who is hardly a detriment to the movement.

His inconsistency might prevent him from ever living up to the expectations set by singles like this one, but it doesn’t stop you from hoping each time out that he’ll deliver something noteworthy and for most in the industry that’s about all you can ask for.

He is what he is in other words and on this day that’s more than good enough.


(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)