Friday, July 13, 2018

Hendrik Meurkens and Bill Cunliffe's Cabin in the Sky

I promised more Hendrik Meurkens in my review of the Roger Davidson Quartet, and here he is. In that review In hinted that I was far more enamored with his vibraphone work than his harmonica work, and here we have just his harmonica--accompanied, of course by Bill Cunliffe's piano. This might be cause for a little disappointment, just because I normally feel that a soulful, expressive harmonica is not entirely suited for jazz. Perhaps because this is a simple duo album, sans rhythm section, I can crawl inside and explore a little deeper and appreciate why Meurkens is considered the finest jazz harmonica player in the world today.

This showcase is more impressive for Meurkens' talent because, in part, this album is patterned after the great piano and harmonica performances recorded by Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans. (Mention Bill Evans to me and I'm all ears, so to speak.) The song selection here is also impressive, ranging from classics such as the title tune, Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" and even Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," to several originals from Meurkens himself. While I compared the sound of Roger Davidson's big, fluid piano to Evans, Cunliffe's touch is a bit lighter and more playful, and that matches the harmonic with a little more ease. So far all of those reasons, I'm going to talk about more than just my personal preferences concerning the mouth harp.

The prize here is, again, the intimacy of this duo, and the recording's ability to bring out all the elements in the two instruments besides mere tone. Piano cues in such recordings are already so obvious, because we're talking about a rather complex box made up of many small parts that makes a lot of noise by merely being as large as it is. The harmonica is different. It's small, and the musician playing it doesn't have to move a lot in order to extract those notes. What you're left with is breath, and Meurkens is a virtuoso because he's able to focus on the notes in an economical way. Let's face it, we've all heard harmonica players who grunt and puff and bring far too much of their physical being into the music. Those cues need to be there to remind us of the human side of making music, but they need to be subtle so that they're not distracting. Meurkens lets the music through and dispenses with the elbow grease needed to produce that passion in his music.

Ultimately I enjoyed this album, and not in spite of the harmonica. This album is actually light on the jazz side of things, even though some very famous jazz tunes are being played. The piano and harmonica aren't plugged into a genre as much as they're joined together to make a unique musical experience. There's that, and there's also learning a little respect for someone who has perfected their craft. Meurken's harmonica becomes one of those musician-instrument interfaces that becomes easily recognizable, and that's the mark of greatness.

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