Hendrik Meurkens – Live at Bird’s Eye – Zoho ZM 201114, [Distr. by Allegro] 54:33 ****:
(Hendrik Meurkens – harmonica, vibraphone, producer; Misha Tsiganov – piano; Gustavo Amarante – bass; Adriano Santos – drums, percussion (pandeiro on track 5))
Quick question: who comes to mind when someone mentions harmonica and jazz? For most people, the answer would undoubtedly be Toots Thielemans and perhaps if someone is more knowledgeable, Larry Adler, Howard Levy (a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones) or Grégoire Maret. But the list will always be short: there are numerous blues artists who use harmonica, but the instrument is not heard as often in a jazz context. Over the span of over two decades, Hendrik Meurkens (who also doubles on vibraphone) has become the de facto chromatic harmonica heir to Thielemans, issuing approximately 17 albums as a leader (two of which were reviewed here) and has worked with Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis and several others.
Meurkens’ latest, Live at Bird’s Eye, includes material taken from 2008 and 2010 concert dates at the venerated Switzerland venue. The almost hour-long document discloses Meurkens’ influences, ranging from straightforward jazz (“Body and Soul”) to his long love affair with Latin Jazz (there are two Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes, plus some Sergio Mendes and more), alongside likeminded Meurkens originals. Meurkens is paired with his excellent, sympathetic quartet which consists of bassist Gustavo Amarante (who joined Meurkens’ group in the late 2000s and has also played with Claudio Roditi, John Scofield and Victor Mendoza); Russian-born and New York City-based pianist Misha Tsiganov (who has done stints with Chico Freeman and Joe Chambers and has backed Meurkens since 2007); and Adriano Santos (drums and percussion), also no stranger to being on stage with Meurkens.
The nine mostly upbeat pieces cascade with verve and vivacity, exemplified by the opening cut, a samba-saturated interpretation of João Donato’s “Amazonas,” which Cal Tjader also performed. Here, Meurkens showcases his skills on vibes, swelling the main theme during a swinging solo which evokes Red Norvo’s spirit. Tsiganov then pushes the tune into an elevated energy level when he takes over. The trio configuration on “Amazonas” makes for a fascinating contrast to the larger ensemble version from Meurkens’1989 release, Samba Importado, which added guitar and more percussion. Another Latin-infused track where vibes/piano interplay is upfront is a buoyant translation of Sergio Mendes’ “Nôa Nôa” (which interestingly was also covered by Tjader). Here, Meurkens’ vibes have a slightly brittle quality on an arrangement similar to “Amazonas,” where Meurkens and Tsiganov offer up more eminent improvising, while Santos prods the rhythm along with sharp percussive bursts.
The foursome also exhibits a facility for late-night melancholia. The ballad “Estate” has a sparse beauty highlighted by Meurkens’ blue-tinted gaitinha (or “little harmonica” in Portuguese, according to the liner notes). During his solo, Tsiganov heightens the emotional content with drive and enthusiasm but preserves the ballad’s inherent refinement. Not to be missed is an elegant “Body and Soul,” one of Meurkens’ favorites (he’s recorded it twice and it is obvious he likes to perform it onstage). Both Tsiganov and Meurkens (on vibes) develop lovely variations on the main theme. There is a comparable perspective to Jobim’s “Dindi,” where Meurkens again pursues a poignant path with his small harmonica. Tsiganov (braced by Amarante and Santos’ polished beat) offers soothing support and discloses his tender side during his solo. The other Jobim treat is a mid-tempo, bossa nova rendition of “Você Vai Ver,” where the vibes and Santos’ brushes perfectly mesh. Although Amarante remains in the background on most material, here he demonstrates his improvisatory talent during a short solo.
Over the years, Meurkens has revealed his adoration for the Brazilian choro style, which he presents in a fun fashion on his animated “Lingua De Mosquito,” which Meurkens formerly did with Cuban clarinetist Pacquito D’Rivera. While this live arrangement dispenses with any extra instruments, it is no less exuberant. Meurkens’ bright harmonica echoes the clarinet’s higher-toned temperament and he conveys just a hint of an accordion-shaded characteristic. Meurkens switches to vibes on the invigorating “Sambatropolis” (the title track from his 2008 album of the same name), inspired by Donato’s compositions. The groove-laced tune commences with a sprightly partido-alto samba introduction and never slows down, with vibes and drums locked in a rhythmic duality while piano and bass contribute a flowing, ever-present rapport. While Meurkens may not convert jazz fans who persist in disliking harmonica (it can be hard to change some tastes), much credit is due to Meurkens for continuing to push the boundaries forward regarding the little-used but highly effective harmonica sound in the jazz community.
Amazonas; Estate; Sambatropolis; Dindi; Lingua De Mosquito; Nôa Nôa; Body and Soul; Minha Saudade; Você Vai Ver
– Doug Simpson
A 50 year expanded reissue of a late-career Peggy Lee album hits the mark.