Born in Paris, but raised on Reunion Island (a French colonial holding in the Indian Ocean), Olivier Ker Ourio (OKO to his fans) is the present reigning master of the chromatic harmonica, and the obvious heir to Toots Theilman.
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I know that the harmonica is, for many jazz fans, the most detested of instruments. I am also keenly aware that the harp is a quick pick-up kind of instrument—a fact that Ourio himself tends to underline, since he only began to play seriously at age 22. But just imagine hearing it played better than anyone else, ever. And then imagine hearing this virtuoso while he is surrounded by innovative, progressive arrangements coloured by an eclectic world music vibe. Please, keep reading?
The chromatic harmonica is tough to hear without thinking of either ‘70s-era Stevie Wonder (which is awesome) or, well, likely nothing. Because if we’re telling the truth, we don’t listen to any harmonica music, do we? Ourio, it must be said, and against all expectations, makes a pretty strong argument for facing down your prejudice. You might, as I do, still detest the thing by the end of the record. But you’ll simply be forcibly impressed by the range, humour, empathy, and depth OKO wrings out of the little metal yuck box. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment…
The arrangements on most of this somewhat uneven record are striking. From sitar to jew’s harp to “canofsoda” to “apartment keys”, Ourio and his bandmates (especially the guitarist/random percussionist Sylvain Luc) refuse to stick to the predictable on most tracks. The opening two numbers (“Paniersulatête, Nichanté” and “Mangé Pou le Coeur”, both Alain Peters) are innovative and diverse in approach. But the third track, a halfhearted and sleepy cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie”, takes the steam out of the engine. Indeed, this will happen again and again throughout the record as occasional moments of saccharine snooziness get in the way of what is frequently a satisfyingly unpredictable ride.
Great percussion from André Ceccarelli brings life to “P’tit Case en Paille” and a rocking guitar groove (which reminds me of Radiohead for some reason) moves “7 en Septembre” right along. Most exciting is that, three times during the record, the addition of African-esque vocals from Danyel Waro and André Minvielle (respectively) bring an intensity to the proceedings that the chromatic harp, with its soft, trebly breathiness just can’t do on its own.
For my ears, those three numbers are the record’s high points. This seems true for the musicians too—the playing on these tracks lifts noticeably over the more restrained work on the other, less adventurous, numbers. The most enticing of the three, “Le Roi dans le Bois”, has the classic feel of a good folk song, with a slightly progressive bent. Simple arrangement—shaker (or roulèr), keyamb (a traditional cane instrument from OKO’s former neck of the woods), vocals, intermittent bass, and the chrome harp—seems to put everything into stark relief. It feels like an advance on an old idea, and Waro’s expressive vocal lines seem to leap out at every turn. A little more of this and Olivier Ker Ourio’s Overseas would be hard not to endorse.