Born in Germany, harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens attended the Berklee School of Music and worked as a studio musician for many years before recording his first solo album in Brazil in 1989. One might think or even hope that such a well-traveled life would result in a more varied sound, but such is not the case. How much you like Meurken’s New York Nights will depend upon how you feel about the use of the harmonica in jazz. I think I would prefer the harmonica as an occasional feature, a spice in jazz rather than as the main instrument on an album’s worth of songs. It does not seem to have the range of tone of the piano, the trumpet, guitar, sax, or even the flute. It’s more like a bass, not as a rhythm instrument but in this wise: I enjoy a good bass solo (though they’re rare), but I think I would find an entire album of bass-led music…kind of wearing. Says the man who has just given a good review to a house music compilation.
I had no particular preconceived notions on the subject when I sat down to listen, but I can see no particular reason the harmonica shouldn’t be used in jazz. That music comes from improvisation, rhythm and melody, not a proscribed set of instruments. It’s just that none of that makes this particularly a good album. It isn’t, not because the harmonica playing is bad or out of place, but because the backing is so generic. It is said that aspiring writers should beware of mistaking a love of reading for a talent for writing. It is also said that we should beware of saying less than our predecessors have said. It seems to me that these sort of admonishments must apply and be adapted to all fields, and they certainly apply here. Meurkens and his trio—piano/bass/drums, joined on four tracks by tenor saxophone—play the sort of music played by people who love that sort of music, but have nothing significant to add. I make an exception in the case of “My Foolish Heart”, but acknowledge this was also the song I knew best coming in.
Meurkens plays a perfectly fine harmonica, and his band are also deft players, particularly pianist Dado Moroni. On a couple of tracks Meurkens joins in close-formation duets with another instrument, Eric Alexander’s sax on the original “The Cottage” and Moroni’s piano on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple”. The results are competent but uninspiring.
I don’t want to pick on this album. Hendrik’s love of the music is no doubt sincere, and I suppose I would rather a generic, derivative album of harmonica-based jazz than another of the saxophone or worse, a rock and roll band. But there it is. If these are New York Nights, I’ll be over here California dreaming. The foot does not tap, and the melodies do not cry out to be sung.
In all, there’s no flash here, and very little substance.
// Notes from the Road
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