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Sax Appeal

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Originally published February 11, 2004.

The college-aged and the middle-aged, black and white, come to hear Big Joe Burrell at Halvorson’s, or wherever he performs. But some of these fans may not entirely grasp just what it is they revere about him. Yes, the voice, the sax, the avuncular kindness with other players. But guitarist Paul Asbell, who has played with Burrell for 25 years in the Unknown Blues Band, surmises there’s something larger at work, and it’s no less than the compelling history of black American music.

“When I first met him, musically what was clear to me was Joe had the older vocabulary of jazz players like Ornette Coleman as well as the blues vocabulary as played by jazz players,” Asbell muses. “As soon as he started singing, it was clear he was much more than a blues player — he had the feel of a real R&B singer. You don’t typically hear that in the sax players of his generation … There’s something iconic about people who are born professional entertainers,” Asbell continues. “I think [Joe’s fans] are aware this guy is the real deal.”

Big Joe Burrell died on February 2, 2005; see the statue of him playing saxophone on Church Street, outside Halvorson’s.