When you think of the instruments most likely front and center in jazz combos, it is unlikely that the harmonica will come to mind. More than likely, if the harmonica occurs to you at all, it will be on a holder hanging from the neck of a folk singer strumming his guitar. There is the octogenarian Belgian harmonica master still going strong as he approaches his nineties–Toots Thielemans. Other than him, the list of jazz virtuosos on the instrument is perhaps slim, but not barren. Clearly, as his website calls him “the most important jazz harmonica player since Toots Thielemans,” German born Hendrik Meurkens needs to be added to the list. Now based in New York, he has worked with the likes of Charlie Byrd, James Moody, Herbie Mann and Paquito D’Rivera among others. Not only does he play the harmonica, he is a master of the vibraphone and a composer as well.
Listen to his 2011 release, Live at Bird’s Eye, and it is unlikely that any of the clichéd ideas you may have about the harmonica and jazz will remain intact. The album focuses on Meurkens’ oft stated passion for Brazilian music. As he explains on a website video, Brazilian music is an “unlimited treasure,” a treasure so varied and rich that one can only hope to do justice to a part of it. And the part he has devoted himself to is the samba, the bossa nova and the choro (a 19th century instrumental form that emphasized happy rhythms and virtuosity).
The nine tracks recorded live with his quartet at the Basel, Switzerland club make clear that he has made some excellent choices. The samba and bossa nova, long staples in the jazz repertoire, give him ample opportunity to demonstrate his chops on both the harmonica and the vibraphone. Joining Meurkens on the set are Russian pianist Misha Tsiganov as well as Brazilians Gustavo Amarante on the bass and Adriano Santos on drums.
They open with an energetic samba, “Amazonas,” with Meurkens playing vibraphone, then change the mood and the instrument on the second track with the Brighetti/Martino classic ballad “Estate.” After a brief intro, Meurkens heads into a sensitive exploration of the melody on the harmonica, making this one of the highlights of the album.
“Sambatropolis” is an original Meurkens composition as is the choro “Lingua de Mosquito,” the older Brazilian form which Meurkens says gives a player a greater opportunity to show his skill on his instrument. It is a perky jazz romp for both the harmonica and the piano. They open Jobim’s ballad,”Dindi” with a understated piano, move into a haunting harmonica solo, and shift into an upbeat bossa nova climax. Samba standards “Nôa Nôa” and “Minha Saudade” and the classic “Body and Soul” fill out the set, which ends with a bossa nova version of “Você Vai Ver.” All in all it is a set that gives both Meurkens and Tsiganov some really fine moments.