Costa Rica is best known for its natural beauty and biodiversity. Musically, the small Central American nation is the home of calypso, soca, salsa, and ancient ceremonial songs played on ocarinas. It is also the birthplace of Jose Ramirez, who creates a genre of music as beautiful as the pura vida (pure life) its residents enjoy.
Ramirez is poised to release his first full album, Here I Come, on May 29th, and the music contained therein is as far from the traditional music of Latin America as a hawk from the moon. Here I Come is pure American blues, combined with Southern soul and R&B. Think Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Johnnie Taylor.
Anyone thinking this is an odd mix need only hear the debut track “Gasoline and Matches” featuring album producer Anson Funderburgh. Here I Come is full of Funderburgh influences; that cocktail of Chicago mixed with Texas blues for which he is so well known. However, that’s just the beginning. Ramirez blends in those magical soul and R&B ingredients to make his signature sound. Jose is quick to point out that he is a blues artist (complete with a tattoo of Robert Johnson). He is however, heavily influenced by classic R&B and soul music and integrates them, instead of the more commonly used rock ‘n roll, to enhance his original songs.
Ramirez is a triple threat. A singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who is just as talented in any one of those categories as he is in the others.
The title track from the new album kicks things off with a colorful blues dedication to the artists who have influenced him.
Ray Charles and BB King
That’s how I learned to sing
Buddy Guy, Johnny Lee
They sure taught me how to bend these strings
Recorded at Wire Studios in Austin, Texas, Ramirez and Funderburgh assembled a top flight ensemble of artists to play on the record. Funderburgh adds his guitar to a couple of tracks; Jim Pugh (Robert Cray, Etta James, BB King) lays down some stunning piano and Hammond B-3; on drums it’s Wes Starr (Mark Hummel, Sam Myers, Delbert McClinton); Nate Rowe (Redd Volkaert, Emily Gimble) on bass; and the cherry on top of this cake is the Texas Horns Kaz Kazanoff, Al Gomez, and John Mills.
What we hear in the mix is predominantly Ramirez on vocals and guitar and Pugh’s keyboards, however the horn section adds that Memphis meets Austin soul flavor and the rhythm section is so tight you couldn’t drive a ten-penny nail in it with a sledgehammer.
This isn’t Jose’s first foray into the blues. He cut a 3 song EP while touring Europe last year, and you probably recognize his name from his band taking 2nd place in the 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Sent there by the DC Blues Society, the Jose Ramirez Band thrilled the crowds and judges, beating out 230 other acts to make it to the finals.
Ramirez wrote nine of the eleven songs on Here I Come. The two covers are every bit as impressive as he extends and believe-it-or-not adds even more soulful vocals to T-Bone Walker’s “I Miss You Baby.” Jose’s take on the Robert Johnson classic “Traveling Riverside Blues,” is unique to say the least. With a pounding back-beat and Pugh’s B-3 rolling in like an encroaching thunderstorm, Ramirez makes this one his own. Without the use of a slide, he inserts his guitar in just the right places throughout the song, with his solo being a string-bending assault.
Of the original songs on Here I Come, some stand-outs include the pounding “One Woman Man,” which is a lyrical surprise; Ramirez’ powerful vocals on the slow burning “Goodbye Letter,”; the pure R&B sound of “Way You Make Me Feel,” and the SRV-esque “Three Years.” The album concludes with “Stop Teasing Me,” an upbeat, dance floor packer that left me thirsty for more.
It’s no coincidence that my favorite track on Here I Come is “Gasoline and Matches.” To my ears, this track is the culmination of Ramirez’ artistic vision. Clever blues lyrics delivered in a soulful style. Being mixed with funky horns and piano make this a show-stopper. Add to all of that Anson’s guitar along with the well deep sax of Mills, and voilà, perfection.
It’s no wonder that Jose Ramirez’ talents have been lauded by such blues dignitaries as Joe Louis Walker, Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, and Little Charlie Baty. Get in on the ground floor of this uber-talented bluesman’s recording career and pick up his self-released Here I Come on May 29th.
*All images courtesy of the artist