August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

John Mayall

Back in the ’60s Mayall fronted a group called the Blues breakers that became a vocational school for a generation of influential British rock musicians, including Eric Clapton, John McVie and Mick Taylor. While his young charges went on to greater glory, Mayall had only one brush with fame, when his huff-and-puff harmonica oddity, “Room to Move,” became a surprise hit in 1970. It’s little short of astonishing that out of the blue at age 57 he would release one of the best records of his long career. Correction: That last sentence should read “out of the blues,” because A Sense of Place is a nicely conceived, tough-minded example of that venerable genre. With John Hiatt-sideman Sonny Landreth playing some nasty slide guitar, “I Want to Go” by J.B. Lenoir starts slow and fragile like a Mississippi Delta lament and then kicks unexpectedly into overdrive just before it ends. “Congo Square” is a tasty sampling of funky Louisiana gumbo that’ll have you picking okra out of your teeth. “Without Her,” which allows Mayall to stretch out a little on the harp, is a terrific take on the Chicago blues. It has an authentic echoey sound to it, as if it were recorded at the bottom of a well. An understated cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” segues nicely into the rocking blues of “I Can’t Complain,” written by Mayall’s wife, Maggie.

One of the weaker songs herein is the walking blues of “Send Me Down to Vicksburg.” When it comes to stride piano, let’s just say Mayall is no Professor Longhair. He’s always had a kind of wan, gargly voice too, but that deficiency is nicely masked by his own experience and producer R.S. Field. Apparently Mayall still has a trick or two to teach those younger, if by this time, middle-aged guys. (Island)

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