There are some performers who become like old friends. You don't quite see them often enough, and it's only when they show up unexpectedly that you remember how much they mean to you. Canadian singer and instrumentalist Harry Manx is one of the best individual performers I know of. Playing his unique style of Delta Blues and slide guitar, his recordings immediately create a calm spot in any storm that my day might have been experiencing.
It's not that his music is, and gods do I hate the word, mellow, nor is it that he shies away from uncomfortable topics, or eschew electric instruments in favour of acoustic to create a "soft" sound. Grace is a difficult word, as it can mean so many different things, but not usually at the same time. Harry Manx not only plays with grace and style, somehow his music exists within a state of grace that's hard to believe could be found outside a temple.
If you remember as far back as the first paragraph, I referred to his unique style of Delta blues playing. For those of you not familiar with Harry, you can be forgiven for thinking that's the usual sort of hyperbole. The fact is there aren't many North American musicians who spent twelve years being instructed in both the physical and spiritual aspects of playing their instrument. Harry plays an instrument of which only two or three have been built, a mohan veena.
Played like any lap-steel bottle neck the differences start with the inclusion of extra strings attached to the neck of the guitar called sympathetic, which when rung, strummed, or simply allowed to resonate through the guitars natural reverberations, bring the sound of the sitar into the mudflats of the Mississippi. They continue with the realization that Harry was trained on the mohan veena as a classical Indian musician, by the man who built by hand the one Harry now plays: Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
Mohan Bhatt is known in the West as the guy who won a Grammy with Ry Cooder some years back for their release Meeting By The River. Of course, the rest of the world already knew him as an international recording star, composer, instrument maker, and teacher. If I understand it correctly, in the Indian classical tradition a student is not only learning how to play the instrument under instruction, he or she becomes a link in a chain of teachers and students dating back to the first teacher of their discipline.
Mohan Bhatt would therefore have passed on the knowledge that his teacher, Pandit Ravi Shanker had imparted to him, who in turn had learned it at the feet of his teacher. When you look upon in it that light – twelve years seems like barely enough time to learn all that you need to learn. Of course, it's still not the sort of commitment you're going to make lightly. But when you listen to Harry Manx, you hear the results.
Wise And Otherwise is the third Harry Manx disc I've had the pleasure of listening to, and ironically it turns out to have been one of his earliest recordings. According to the liner notes, he made this recording only a year after returning to Canada, in 2001, but all of the original material is copyright 2006, and it was remastered in October of 2006. I do know that it just showed up in the mail this week and Harry's label, Dog My Cat Records lists it as a new release on their web site. I can only assume that it's a rerelease of an older recording in order to allow the music to reach a wider audience now that Harry has gained in popularity.
Whatever the reason it's a real treat for the new fan and the old friends of Harry as it gives you glimpses of everything the man is capable of; a voice that is literally filled with soul, a harmonica that sings, and, of course, his incredible abilities on stringed instruments.
Of the twelve songs on Wise And Otherwise, Harry has written seven of them and come up with new arrangements for the remaining five. The music ranges in provenance from the old folk song "Death Have Mercy" (which I know as "O Death"), B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone", to Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady". No, that's not a misprint – you read that correctly – Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady". Played solo on the Mohan Veena with no other accompaniment, it probably sounds like no other version you've ever heard. Yet, at the same time it's a fitting tribute to a guitar player whose spirituality was often ignored in favour of his pyrotechnics.
There are not many acoustic players who will risk pitting their skills against people's memories of one of the most flamboyant guitar players of an earlier generation. But I'm sure those thoughts didn't even enter Harry's mind – it's a song he likes and like everything else on the CD he puts his heart and soul into the recording unworried about other people's expectations.
I'm having a hard time talking about individual tracks on the CD, not because none of the other songs stand out, but because it's hard to think of Harry's music in terms of individual numbers. There is an atmosphere created by the sound of his voice, guitars, and harmonica that takes you to a place removed from the world for the time it takes to play. It's not that all the music sounds the same, far from it in fact, as the sound oscillates between blues, traditional Indian ragas, and folk in an ever-changing Kaleidoscope.
That being said, his incorporation of an original raga "The Gist Of Madhuvanti" into a medley with "The Thrill Is Gone" sounds like King had written it for that purpose. As his own songs balance the transcendence of Eastern spiritualism with the vitality of life found in the earthiness of dirt scrabble blues, his covers are leavened with spirit.
Harry Manx is a performer who really needs to be listened to in order to understand the experience of his music. All I can give you is reassurances that the music is beautiful and deserving of a respectful and careful listen. Even if you knew nothing else about his music, that alone should tell you how unusual and unique it is. East doesn't meet West in Harry Manx's music – they don't need to because the introductions were made ages ago when we all heard music for the first time.