Author: Tom Ellis
Over time, do harp players get more jaded than other musicians? About to round up to my 45th year of playing, and with that many years talking to other harp players, it often seems that way. Our instrument just hasn’t found its way into a lot of musical styles: Quick, name me the top five jazz, pop, Americana, Grunge and classical players!! I mean, as much as I love the Sonny Boys, the Walters, Kim, Rod, Harman and all the great blues players, after years of listening to them and their incredible talent it can all start to “kind of” sound the same over decades. A few blues guys always bring me to attention-Rick Estrin and Jerry Portnoy most notably-but I tend to get more excited about our humble instrument when I hear it in new formats. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a stretch. When I hear Gregoire Maret I’m blown away, but guys with his level of talent and depth remind me of folks like Ornette Coleman-I can appreciate it, totally dig it, but it doesn’t strike that rarely touched chord. You know, the one that makes you want to grab your nearest harp and start trying to learn what you’ve just heard.
Nothing better describes the reaction I’ve had today after spending an hour in my car getting deep into Come Rain Or Come Shine, Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson’s newest CD. A quiet and eloquent guy, Kirk is a man of few words, but when he speaks through his diatonic and chromatic harmonicas my ears come to full attention. This is an old/modern set of tunes; old in the sense Kirk’s used the great organ trios of the early sixties as his musical base (and totally captures their feel), modern in the approach and playing you’ll hear. At first listening you might be inclined to think easy listening, and in some ways you might be right. But crank the volume a bit and the depth of nuanced playing jumps out at you. No ego here, either. His name may be on the sleeve, but Kirk’s one of the boys, letting everyone shine, often moreso than him.
I could go on and on, but let’s cut to the chase. ALL of these cuts are good, and all are well known or somewhat familiar jazz standards you may have heard before. They are all strongly connected to the original versions, but Kirk and his great band have simplified things, and dug deep into the groove and feeling each presents. My faves are the cover tune, a poignant reading of this famous Harold Arlen tune, a very, very swinging version of Horace Silver’s “The Preacher”, and the surprising, out-of-left-field “Blue Bossa.” Everyone just nails this Kenny Dorham tune, the organ/guitar/harp attack pulsing over some superb drumming (dig that hi-hat).
Blues guys will probably go first to “Willow Weep For Me” to see how it stands up against Musselwhite. Let’s not say Kirk completely ignores Charlie’s path, but he certainly heads off in a very different direction. And the emotion that exudes from almost every note, the way he uses his vibrato, his modulation in volume (even in working a single note), and the way he approaches and plays over the changes, especially when he lets it rip, well, I sensed a deep relationship with this song, both the melody AND heartbreaking lyrics.
Best harp album I’ve heard this year. I had the same reaction when I heard Jerry’s “In The Mood Room” years back. Jerry was taking the harmonica in some new directions, apace from his blues rep. Kirk’s done the same thing here, moving away from his “country” rep. You gotta get this thing. Tom Ellis/Tom’s Mics.