A quick spin of Jonavious Willis’s Spectacular Class will have you running to check its date. It’s low-key and old fashioned, in a perfect way. You’d never guess the album was made in 2019. And you’d certainly never guess Willis, who handles vocals, guitar, and banjo, is just 22-years-old, still working on completing his undergraduate degree.
Willis doesn’t have a booming blues voice. It’s gentle without being passive. It’s soft without being quiet. Willis is able to subtly tweak it within songs so that while it always sounds familiar between tracks, it never sounds quite the same. It would be hyperbolic to call him a vocal chameleon. A more apt way to describe Willis’s talent is that he has a vision for the vocal of every song, coupled with the ability to create characters out of his voice.
For example, on “Country,” a country blues featuring just Willis and his guitar, he’s charming as anything, singing “Follow me to the country / We can have a real good time.” He sounds young and energetic and he just seems very sincere about the fun of the country. I was sitting there ready to follow him to it. But then, on “Blues is Dead,” which isn’t a serious song concept, he sounds like a wise ass. He also sounds about 30 years older than he does on “Country.” And “Friend Zone Blues,” a hilarious track, is almost a talking blues. Willis does more than write songs. The tracks are almost fully self-contained plays.
Willis’s guitar playing is also a treat. He’s not flashy and there aren’t lots of solos, but his mostly acoustic work is rich. “Daddy’s Dough” is a standout track, with an insistent acoustic riff and hiccups of harmonica. “World Is In a Tangle” features some excellent banjo, mandolin, and guitar work, including smoking solos from all three instruments.
The careers of Willis and fellow bluesman Christone “Kingfish” Ingram are intertwined as two young African-American men re-energizing the blues. It’s not quite fair, since the two have little in common other than their chosen genre, youth, and race (and to be fair, Willis did contribute a song to Ingram’s last album, so it’s not like they’re total strangers). But there’s a strong tendency to think about the two of them together, since they’re both modernizing the blues while working firmly within its confines. Ingram is revolutionizing blues rock, but Willis’s work with more traditional blues is subversive. He understands the history of the blues, knows all of the right licks, and more importantly, he plays them like he truly loves them. But he’s got a contemporary sensibility that makes all of the songs on Spectacular Class feel relevant and of the moment. Willis is creating traditional blues music for both the present and the future. If Muddy Waters were a Millennial, he’d be Willis. There’s no greater compliment.
The Review: 10/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Daddy’s Dough
– World Is In a Tangle
– Blues Is Dead
– Friend Zone Blues
The Big Hit
– Friend Zone Blues
Review by Steven Ovadia