"The blues is a musical language in which I feel understood, and in which I can navigate comfortably and express my innermost self."
Pierre Lacocque: Burning Chicago Blues
As band leader and composer, Pierre Lacocque's vision has never wavered since he founded his band in 1991. His mantra is clear and focused. The band has always had an ensemble sound: all musicians are featured and welcome to contribute on stage and on recordings. His music is traditional because it is steeped in Chicago's golden sounds of the 1950's, and many extraordinary contemporaries. On the other hand, Pierre's blues is unique because he dislikes to tread on old beaten paths. He always writes new stuff. Mississippi Heat emerged in 1991 on a night at the Cafe Lura in Chicago. Guitarist Jon McDonald invited Pierre to play harp for him with Robert Covington on drums and vocals. It was a great night, with a raucous crowd in this Polish neighborhood. Pierre looked happy, and the band played with such inspiration that his brother Michel was drawn to say he would find gigs with little efforts. A man of his word, Michel did find gigs for the band.
Over the years, MISSISSIPPI HEAT has been the subject of several TV and movie features. French TV has released a documentary on Blues featuring the band. Soon after a concert was filmed in Montreal, and was sold to an Italian TV company. French Canadian TV also featured Pierre and his brother-manager Michel on one of their regular programs in 35 countries. CAB DRIVING MAN (2016) is band’s 12th recording, and 6th release on Delmark Records. Passionate and melodic harmonica player Pierre Lacocque leads his band by providing 11 original songs, while maestro guitar player Michael Dotson sings on 3 of his own compositions. Lead singer Inetta Visor delivers stellar vocals on 12 songs, including 2 covers: “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” here a duet with Giles Corey; originally made famous by Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure, and “Smooth Operator” previously recorded by Sarah Vaughan. The album takes you from vintage, low-down Chicago and Delta blues to exciting boogies, Latin beats, and R&B ballads. Special guests include Sax Gordon, Dave Specter, Sumito Ariyo, and Ruben Alvarez.
How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
Blues music helped me see the world as a place where all people feel and need to express themselves and be heard. There are no barriers at the depth of feeling that blues brings. We are ONE. Blues reveals what I believe to be true: that this music represents the truth about what lies in our souls as human beings. Blues music talks about life’s struggles and joys we all experience from birth to old age. It reveals the depth of one’s soul. It emerged from the bowels of dehumanizing slavery times to an inspiring, constructive, and artistic way of coping with despair. Therefore in Blues music and culture you will also detect hope. Hope that while they were in bondage like the Jews in Egypt, there will come a day when this will end. Not surprisingly Biblical stories of Moses, Daniel and Jesus were often part of the Blues lyrics. So to me, Blues culture tells me that in spite of the pull of the abyss, life can also be turned around into hope and meaning. Blues music speaks personally to everyone, from all walks of life, and from all races and cultures. There has not been a place on earth where Mississippi Heat has performed from Venezuela to Finland, from California to Croatia, Serbia and Poland, for instance, where people did not respond with enthusiastic emotions, sometimes even tears of joy and appreciation. This is a phenomenon shared by all blues musicians I know.
I play Blues music because I feel at home. I am home. It gives me the opportunity to experience through music what all human beings experience at some point or another: loneliness, sadness as well as the experience of meaning and happiness. All these emotions are welcomed in that musical genre. This means I do not have to hide truths about myself, and from myself.
How do you describe the Pierre Lacocque sound? What characterizes the Mississippi Heat philosophy? (Pierre Lacocque / Photo by Daniel Brunner)
My sound is influenced by the post-War Chicago blues recording history. Most of my masters are African-American players. There are some white players that have had a tremendous influence on me such as Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Kim Wilson, but it is the musical history and heritage of African-Americans that have really had an impact on my playing. My foundation is definitely the 1950s postwar Chicago harmonica sound. Yet, after a few years of playing note for note harmonica licks and phrasings by my masters Little Walter, Big Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, the 2 Sonny Boys, and Papa George Lightfoot among others, I eventually felt that I had enough of a foundation to create my own blues phrasings. I knew that I would be happier if I were to work on my own style. I also knew I could never be another Little Walter. Some famous and fantastic harmonica players are happy to repeat what has been recorded before on the blues harp. They stick to well-known – and sometimes difficult - phrasings. And they do it admirably well! As for myself, while I love the vintage feel too, I do not like repeating what's been done before. The Mississippi Heat philosophy is to celebrate life. It is to make the moment count. At the end of the day, I would be honored if members from the audience tell me that Mississippi Heat left them with joy and hope.
How do you describe Cab Driving Man sound and songbook? What touched you emotionally from the studio sessions?
Sometimes it is hard to put into words what we feel. For me, music is a bridge towards some understanding. I am moved by this album. I love the repertoire of songs, the way the band gels together, and their intuitive playing. I am surprised that I can listen to it over and over again and still I do not get tired of it. This is atypical for me as I usually “turn the page” and do not return to any of our pervious recordings. This new album is again influenced by the Chicago blues post war electric tradition, though you will also detect pre-war motifs as well. Of the 16 songs released on the album, 14 are originals. Eleven written by me, and three others composed by Michael Dotson. This means that the album in full of unique ideas and musical phrasings. As with all our Mississippi Heat recordings, I prize variety. Besides my beloved post war blues music, I also enjoy Latin rhythms. I am a big Santana fan for example, and that is again reflected here on one of my songs, “Rosalie”.
When I prepare for a new recording project, I try not to repeat tempos and songs that sound the same but presented with different lyrics. As with all my recorded work over the past 25 years, I take pride in not repeating myself when I solo or play background harp. It is a challenge because there are tempting harmonica licks available from maestros like Big and Little Walter, for instance. And I take that challenge for each of our songs! While I do sometimes purposely repeat their classical licks – as an homage to them – I ultimately enjoy creating my own phrasings. I play more acoustic harp on Cab Driving Man than I have ever done on our previous 11 albums. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to continue in that vein in future recordings. We rehearsed as a band on three occasions. I also met individually with everyone to review the material and asked for feedback. By the time we hit the studio, everyone knew what the songs were all about. Solos are assigned and arrangements are familiar. We usually record 2 takes per song. Sometimes one will do. We work well with Steve Wagner at Delmark Records. He has a fantastic ear for details. Details I would not be able to detect as I am too engulfed in directing the music and in my playing. Steve and I have a superb partnership. We co-produced the album.
"Blues music helped me see the world as a place where all people feel and need to express themselves and be heard. There are no barriers at the depth of feeling that blues brings. We are ONE." (Mississippi Heat: Pierre, Brain, Michael, Inetta & Terrence / Photo by Alfonso Zirpoli)
Why is the Delmark sound and Bob Koester legacy continuing to generate such a devoted following?
Well, there are no record labels still standing that released albums for as long and as successfully as Delmark has. Yes, Bob Koester Sr. recorded wonderful and seminal artists like Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Roosevelt Sykes, Walter Horton, and Little Walter. But he also had the courage to record blues unknowns. Artists that deserved the chance to be heard. And this all the while knowing that the financial success of these recordings would be slim! On many Delmark recordings you get the raw, down-to-earth sound: unpretentious, live-as-it-happens, honest. For Bob Koester Sr. releasing albums is first and foremost a labor of love. Over the years he often told me that the financial success of Delmark Records has been with his jazz and blues albums, DVDs and CDs sales from his beloved Jazz Records Mart store.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
The most meaningful meetings for me were with Junior Wells and Sonny Wimberly. A few months after I arrived in Chicago, I met Junior Wells at Theresa's Tavern. My brother Michel always accompanied me there. Many giants of the blues would show up like Dave and Louis Myers, James Cotton, and Carey Bell. From the very beginning, it was Junior Wells who embraced me with open arms and gave me his blessing. It is as though he was saying, “Pierre you belong here with us”. He literally took me under his wings. I have pictures where he even kisses me on the cheek! He also gave me harmonicas as gifts. I cherished them for years. I knew in my heart that he saw how deeply I felt the music. Over the years, Junior Wells remained supportive towards me. Though I do not have Junior’s distinct harmonica’s style, I have taken a few of his ideas and incorporated them into mine. For instance, I enjoy his less-is-more approach, his use of silence between notes, and his melodic style.
Another person who had a profound influence on me was bass player/singer Sonny Wimberly (b. 1937 – died 08-24-1991). Sonny Wimberly, also known as “Little Sonny”, had played 3 years with Little Walter (1964-1967), and 7 years with Muddy Waters (1967 to 1974). He left Muddy’s band because of all the traveling and the low pay. Muddy was known not to pay well. I met Sonny in 1990 at a jam session in Chicago. He enjoyed my playing. He sang mostly Muddy Waters covers. Tunes like “I’ve got My Mojo”, and "Hoochie Coochie Man” were common on his shows. We were going to do a recording together, but he unfortunately passed away in August of 1991. After his passing, I wrote a song for Sonny called "Heartbroken," sang by Robert Covington which appears on Mississippi Heat's first album (STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART, 1992); and newer version can be heard on our 2005 live recording, ONE EYE OPEN (bonus track, on DVD version). (Photo by Igor Opassi)
"My fear, however, is that even though there are still wonderfully vintage-based Chicago blues bands out there, some have lost the blues culture and its musical vocabulary."
Are there any memories of gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions that you’d like to share with us?
One of the highlights of my life was when Junior Wells came on stage with us at the Checkerboard Lounge (Chicago, c. 1991). I was then a member of a band called The Blue Mirror Band, led by guitar player Doug MacDonald. We had regular gigs at The Checkerboard Lounge. One night, Junior was in the audience and came on stage to play with me. I was moved. Another highlight has been to have Buddy Guy do the same thing with Mississippi Heat. We are a regular band at his club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, and sometimes Buddy is in the audience, sitting at the bar. He often gets inspired and comes on stage to sing or play with us.
What do you miss most nowadays about the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of the blues?
Blues is a music that will never disappear. It is just too beautiful and irreplaceable. My fear, however, is that even though there are still wonderfully vintage-based Chicago blues bands out there, some have lost the blues culture and its musical vocabulary. Indeed, many so-called blues bands nowadays, including in Chicago, tend to play Funk, Soul, or Rhythm and Blues more than vintage Chicago blues. To play the blues, you have to study. In less than a minute I can tell if someone has got the culture or not. It's a discipline. Many so-called blues musicians do not come across to me as loving the blues. But even if they did love it, many do not spend time “wood-shedding”, that is, studying the music. My drummer Kenny Smith brings me joy, because he continues to study blues music and its culture. He plays piano and harmonica, and writes original songs. When he plays covers, he plays with feeling because he connects with the history behind each of these songs. He feels it. That's the difference. Some bands go just through the motions.
I wish I had been in Chicago in the 1950s. I wish I had been old enough to go to the blues bars and listen to Howlin' Wolf, Big Walter, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Charlie Musselwhite. I came to Chicago a year after Little Walter died (February 15, 1968). Soon after I arrived, Otis Spann -- my favorite blues pianist of all time -- also died (April 24, 1970).
"My sound is influenced by the post-War Chicago blues recording history. Most of my masters are African-American players." (Mississippi Heat '95: Bob Stroger, Allen Kirk, Deitra Farr, Billy Flynn, Pierre Lacocque & James Wheeler)
What connects the legacy of first Mississippi Heat lineup with the new generation of musicians?
There is an uncanny resemblance to the original lineup with the one represented on "Warning Shot." That's because Michael Dotson has joined the band full-time. Michael is an integral part of our vintage sound, as are Kenny Smith on drums, Brian Quinn on bass and Neil O'Hara on piano. There are a lot of vintage blues lovers in the band. So the current lineup is quite comparable to the original one, when Jon McDonald, and later, Billy Flynn, Deitra Farr, Bob Stroger, Allen Kirk, James Wheeler were part of the band. On top of that, the present band got an exciting musical dimension that didn't exist as strongly when we started 23years ago. With guitar players like Giles Corey or Carl Weathersby, who are maestros at all styles of musical styles, I have been able to explore musical genres otherwise not open to me (Caribbean or Calypso blues, and Reggae for instance).
What has made you laugh and what touched you from playing the chitlin’ circuits?
The chitlin' circuit has certain advantages for a band. One of them is that you get close to the people and the fans. Being physically close to the patrons in intimate places brings deep emotions when you play, because the band feels close to the audience and shares the immediacy of moment with it. But the circuit makes you pay your dues. It's ironic of course that the more clubs make you work, the less they pay you. We try not to play the circuit too often, because it doesn't help us pay our bills. However, it really tests and prepares the band for bigger events. We often use these gigs to rehearse new material, for example. We've had some laughs, too. When we play in Washington, D.C., at the club “Madame's Organ”, there are lots of young students in their 20s who drink and do silly things like walking onstage while we perform, dance a bit with us, and then come down without missing a beat!
"Blues is a music that will never disappear. It is just too beautiful and irreplaceable." (Michael Dotson, Kenny Smith, Inetta Visor, Pierre Lacocque & Brian Quinn / Photo by Daniel Brunner)
You’ve traveled around the world. What are the differences between Europe, Canada and America?
We tend to get a good reception anywhere we go, and I would like to think that is because we are a band that plays from the heart. So it doesn't really matter where we play, because people seem to like us. But in the US -- especially in Chicago -- the fans are used to a lot of blues bands. In Europe and in Canada, audiences go nuts, because some of them haven't heard much of the blues. Sometimes we play in villages in Quebec like Alma or Jonquiere, where there are no blues bands to speak of. They love us, and they also connect with my French-speaking heritage. We tour Canada East to West, and it's a joy. We've played in Tunisia, Poland, Serbia, Venezuela, all over Europe, etc., and they love us too. When we travel outside of the U.S., there's a respect and often a knowledge about the band’s history. But it's also great for us to travel and see that our music has a universal message.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
The blues is a musical language in which I feel understood, and in which I can navigate comfortably and express my innermost self. Other people may find that meaning in Folk or Country & Western music. Still others might find it in poetry or philosophy. I find myself at home with the blues. I discovered blues music in the summer of 1969, when I came from Belgium to Chicago at age 16. It made me feel like I was called to be a part of a greater whole, a bigger world than my own. In spite of being of European descent, it made me feel that I belonged, and that I wasn't alone. The first time I heard blues music live, I got lucky enough to hear a legendary harmonica player, Big Walter Horton. Not only did I hear mesmerizing amplified blues harmonica sounds, but the music made me feel that a family was calling out to me. I felt drawn towards it like a magnet. I couldn't resist.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
"I play Blues music because I feel at home." Photo by Daniel Brunner
What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
The best advice I have ever received was from a piano player named Carl Snyder in the late 1980’s. He's still alive. He had toured with Lonnie Brooks among other legendary bands. He was a seasoned piano player who would come to the same jam sessions where I met Sonny Wimberly (at a Chicago coffee house named “No Exit”). One time he told me, "Pierre, you're overplaying. You're playing over my singing." I didn't realize I was doing that. It was a helpful feedback because it taught me to listen better to what is happening on stage. To this day I make diligent attempts not to interfere with whoever does the singing or soloing. I even enjoy not playing at times to allow musicians to shine.
What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural context?
Blues is a universal music. No one, whether in Peru or in Angola can resist its charm. It brings all of us globally as one. It is a deceptively simple music, with predictable chords and turn arounds. Yet it is so profound. It breaks and transcends cultural barriers. It is a music that does not lie. It tells you truths about what lies in your soul. It is an existential music. Even if one never had heard blues music before - as I had not until I was 16 years old, an adolescent coming from Brussels to Chicago and with NO blues music awareness – he or she will be moved. In my case Blues music changed my life. It gave me a home I never imagined existed.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go and why?
I would have wanted to go and see Little Walter with his band, The Aces, after he left Muddy Waters in 1952. I would have loved to see him play his then big hit, "Juke" with Louis and Dave Myers on guitars, and Fred Below on drums. I certainly would have peeked at the amplifier(s) and microphone he was using!
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