There is something to be said about the dedication, ambition and determination of a scholar; the drive to be the best and to offer his best work on whatever task is presented. Enter Sugar Brown, aka Dr. Ken Kawashima, PhD. Kawashima is a scholar and professor of East Asian history, as well as a scholar of music. His chosen musical endeavor is classic blues music and a concerted effort to record and preserve the unmistakable Chicago blues sound that harkens back to Chess Record’s famous releases.
The 2014 release of Sugar Brown’s debut recording Sugar Brown’s Sad Day stunned listeners across Canada with his ease and force in playing and singing blues. He quickly earned recognition for his classic style and raucous performances from the media and festival bookers coast-to-coast.
Recently, Sugar Brown’s repertoire has morphed beyond Chicago blues and into a more chaotic and wild space shared by the Texas blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, as well as the trance-like blues of northern Mississippi’s R.L. Burnside. Sugar Brown’s highly anticipated, second studio album, Poor Lazarus, reveals Sugar Brown in his many diverse grooves, shades, and styles, and is the result of three years of performing and collaborating with harmonica maestro, Bharath Rajakumar (Bharath and his Rhythm Four), drummer extraordinaire, Art Makris (JW-Jones, Kid Ramos), and jug band star, Julia Narveson (Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band). Also on the album is Toronto-based drummer and percussionist, Pat Philips, who added vibes to the mix. Like Sugar Brown’s first album, Poor Lazarus was also recorded live-off-the-floor, full-track mono, and onto tape for that classic analog sound.
Poor Lazarus was inspired by recent events in the USA, namely On August 9, 2014; Michael Brown was fatally shot and murdered by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. One month later, Kawashima discovered the 1911 song “Poor Lazarus” in Alan and John Lomax’s Folksongs of the USA, which tells the tragic story of a (white) police officer fatally shooting a black man named Lazarus. How history repeats itself—but always with differences in the present. To give this old song contemporary meaning and relevance, Kawashima composed a driving and swinging ostinato groove, which he imagined with a huge chromatic harp line that Rajakumar would eventually play and record beyond Kawashima’s wildest expectations. The decision to record “Poor Lazarus” in the wake of Ferguson, to not let the moment slip away, was the catalyst to record this singularly unique album.
A mix of originals and boldly crafted and arranged covers, Poor Lazarus features 14 standout tracks that are at once raw, vicious and thought-provoking. From the opening notes of Frankie Lee Sims’ tune “Walking with Frankie”, to the desperate plea for one last chance with a lover on the visceral “Meet Me in the Country,” and finally to ingenious interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s, “The Mad Gardener’s Song” and Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule,” Sugar Brown’s blues is sweet, dark, inconsolable, raw, and wild. Most of all, it’s blues that will make you move and get down!