John Mayall is an occasionally inspired band leader of a group that has long bared his name. He is, though, an awful harmonica player, a mediocre musician, a pedestrian musical intelligence. His main talent is as a talent scout, having an acute ear for the talent of better musicians that would make his marginal efforts to compose a tune and blow a solo seem halfway substantial. Context, in this case, the packaging really, is everything when the center of a concept barely sustains the virtuosity that surrounds it.Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist in the sense that someone in an office or retail situation is a multi-tasker.
As they have the ability to do several things at the same time poorly, so Mayall is someone who dabbles on harmonica, guitar, keyboards, having a tentative command on blues basics and not much else. I wouldn't even call him an instrumentalist--dabbler pretty much gets what he does. His penchant for finding tasty and distinct blues guitarist was, no doubt, aimed at fleshing out what otherwise would have been a thin, brittle sound from the blues breakers had he featured himself as the featured soloist. Mayall is not an interesting musician. He's hardly a musician at all. I give Mayall full credit for putting together crackerjack bands that have, at times, made it possible for Mayall to release first-rate albums. The albums I listen to especially are USA Union featuring the sadly underrated Harvey Mandel on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Sugarcane Harris on violin, and, of course, turning point, with the splendid, Desmond-y sax work of Johnny Almond and Jon Mark on acoustic guitar. Mayall's harmonica work was more texture than anything else, save for the nice workout he accomplishes on" Room to Move".
These were band albums with credible, blues-based tunes with jazz used as a texture, groove, and pacing. Too often, much too often for me, though, Mayall has pushed his harmonica work to the forefront, usually following a hot guitar solo or sultry work out from a reedman, and the effect is like a blowing out a tire when you're cruising at a comfortable rate of speed. It's my view Mayall was playing catch up with what the Butterfield band was doing with their jazz-rock ventures. What Butterfield and his band did on East-West with Cannonball Adderly's "The Work Song" and the long title improv, released in 1966, is so profoundly ahead of its time that I consider Mayall's contribution to the fusing of jazz, blues, and rock as a bit less important than you do. It's a matter of taste, I realize, and I'm just stating mine, perhaps obnoxiously so. It may well be an unrealistic expectation of mine for musicians described often enough as "band leaders" to be strong, confident, soloists no less than the musicians they hire.