If you’re a harmonica player, chances are your recordings will be filed under ‘blues.’ It’s a genre ideally suited to the instrument’s tonal palette and range. But in truly talented hands (or should that be mouths?), the humble harmonica is capable of a much more.
Take Jay Gaunt’s aptly titled Harmonicopia. There are blues to be found here, to be sure. But Gaunt is clearly a man with interests beyond twelve-bar convention.
Gaunt, who doesn’t sing, kicks off his debut with a jazzy “Listen Here,” an instrumental excursion that finds his incisive harp accented by powerful brass punch of the Royal Horns. Then it’s a moody take on the Allman Brothers classic, “Midnight Rider,” which finds Gaunt weaving his acoustic harp through an evocative arrangement featuring burbling electric piano and a string section.
Gaunt follows with three of his own compositions, all instrumentals co-written with Kathy Sheppard. “Catnip” and “Misty Muse” sound pretty much like their titles suggest, the former bright and bouncy while the latter is restrained and evocative. “Wonder Boy” is jazzy in a way reminiscent of both Dave Brubeck (think “Take Five”) and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans.
Guest vocalist Victor Wainwright lends his gruff pipes to the next four tracks as Gaunt turns his attention to the blues. Bobby Charles’ “Why Are People Like That” gets a straightforward treatment with Gaunt blowing hard-edged amplified harp, but Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues” features spooky electric washboard and spacey guitar effects along with a rhythmic reinvention; it changes the tune substantially but nonetheless works remarkably well. “Home Of The Blues” is an extended grinder that lets Gaunt stretch out with both acoustic and amplified interludes, while “Devil Dealt The Blues” finds him borrowing a bit from the classic “Big Boss Man” beat to excellent effect.
Gaunt shows his adventurous side with a jazzy rendition of “Greensleeves.” In truth it’s a bit of an awkward fit, more interesting than engaging; still, Gaunt deserves credit for the sheer musical audacity of it all. And he returns to somewhat more conventional territory with the last two cuts. “Double Shuffle” is just that, a harmonica rumble between Gaunt and guest Brandon Bailey, with the two trading licks in a dazzling display of hard-core harmonica virtuosity. The party comes to a close with a cover of Peter Green’s “Rattlesnake Shake,” marking the return of Wainwright for a dark and dangerous sounding conclusion that works on every level.
Gaunt is backed by a fine band, with keyboard wiz Lester Snell playing a large part in proceedings – he helped with string and horn arrangements and orchestrations. Theirs may not be household names but all participants acquit themselves admirably, providing solid yet unobtrusive support throughout. It’s clearly Gaunt’s show, though, and even though a little harmonica typically goes a long way, he manages to maintain interest with great tone and a genuinely creative approach.
Gaunt is an excellent harmonica player, but there are lots of those around. Harmonicopia succeeds in part thanks to his considerable chops, but it’s Gaunt’s musical curiosity and his ability to pull off the unexpected that sustains interest through repeated plays. He’s definitely one to watch …!