Here are two words I never thought I’d be using together in a CD review — jazz and harmonica. But that’s exactly what’s on display in this new Hendrik Meurkens release from Zoho titled simply New York Samba Jazz Quintet, and due out the first week of January. This is the latest for Meurkens, who has generated over a dozen albums that mostly feature his harmonica wizardry in a Brazilian jazz milieu, although he is also a talented vibraphonist. He’s backed on the album by many of his regulars, including acclaimed Brazilian pianist Helio Alves, drummer Adriano Santos, and Gustavo Amarante on bass. He’s also added Jed Levy on flute and tenor sax to give even more versatility to the group.
Jazz harmonica is not exactly a crowded field, but when new players come along they no doubt find themselves in a situation not unlike that of jazz guitarists, who have legends such as Django Reinhardt leaving big footsteps to follow. The figurative big shoes for harmonica players to try to fill belong to Toots Thielemans, who spent decades establishing the chromatic harmonica as a jazz instrument. (And interestingly was himself influenced by guitarist Reinhardt.)
Henrik Meurkens, who was born in Germany of Dutch parents, was already a skilled vibraphonist by age 19 when he first heard Thielemans play the harmonica and became fascinated with the instrument. He began to play and followed up by moving to New York for a while to attend Berklee and continue his musical education. He then spent a number of years in Brazil where he absorbed a deep appreciation for Brazilian jazz, a style of music that became the driving force of his musical life. He came back to New York and became a “towering” presence on the American jazz scene, as you can readily see in the picture.
This album continues Meurkens’ affinity for Brazilian jazz and is mostly Samba and Choro (Chorinhos), which is a more improvisational form of Brazilian music that’s been described as a cousin to ragtime. A good example is “Mimosa”, written by Meurkens and featuring strong work by Levy on tenor as a counterpoint to Meurkens’ vibes, an unusual combination for the form but it works well. Another interesting idea is brought to life on “Menina Na Janela” (Girl In The Window), a choro that Meurkens included on his earlier album, Amazon River, on which it was performed by harmonica and bandolim. On this version that instrument – a type of Brazilian mandolin – is replaced by Levy on flute, and it proves to be a great idea.
Meurken’s harmonica is especially dominant on “Flor de Lis”, a song that is pretty much a non-stop solo for him, but when the sound is this enjoyable that’s hardly a criticism. And one of my all-time favorites, “I Can’t Get Started”, a tune made famous by Bunny Berigan and recorded by many different jazzmen through the years, lends itself surprisingly well to a Samba beat. It’s a real treat, with Meurkens’ melodic harmonica lead alternating with Levy’s outstanding sax solos, and is certainly a different sound than other versions of this classic jazz piece.
I enjoyed this album immensely, and would recommend it to Brazilian jazz fans — or for that matter, any music lovers who might enjoy something just a little different. The harmonica, a mainstay of country and pop music (and favorite of cowboys around the campfire) proves its versatility.
Hendrik Meurkens – New York Samba Jazz Quintet
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