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Hendrik Meurkens: Amazon River

Robert R. Calder

Meurkens is a phenomenal harmonica player, steeped in and deeply in love with Brazilian music. There is an effortless blend here, but too little effort, far too much blend.

Hendrik Meurkens

Amazon River

Label: Blue Toucan
US Release Date: 2005-08-23
UK Release Date: Available as import
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A German virtuoso on both instruments, Hendrik Meurkens is listed as playing vibes as well as harmonica on one number from this set of the Brazilian music he fell in love with after he'd completed musical studies in his homeland. Mostly he's on chromatic harmonica, with the excellent jazz piano of Helio Alves, and a variety of percussion and samples of Brazilian stringed instruments in a set where the instrumentation changes between one track and another.

Paquito D'Rivera pops up and, playing stunning clarinet, makes something more of one of two items on which he appears. Oscar Castro-Neves plays excellent guitar and sings well, if toward the sentimental side, on Jobim's "Sem Voce", but he's no asset on other titles where he is credited as author of "string arrangements" (played on synthesizer but in the with-strings manner a la Muzak). Indeed, Meurkens seems a shade more inspired where the name of Castro-Neves as arranger is missing from whichever title's cast list, and the music retains a freshness and spontaneity and has nice subtlety and colour from both Alves and the Brazilian players who sit in now and again. Why the megalopolitan bland-making electric "string arrangements" when the other resources were there?

On the opener, having performed an exquisite introduction, Alves in his solo slips briefly into a little frilly overindulgence, neither rare nor offensive in a lot of Latin music. The appearance of the keyboard/ strings later on is an arrival of something superfluous. Thank you, but your "help" was not required.

Likewise, the second and title track, distinguished by Dori Cammi's deep voiced singing, but mushed up by more "string" arrangement -- or maybe feathered, bearing in mind the virtual presence on this one of some electronic birds. One had always supposed rhythm crucial to Brazilian music, but perhaps the intention here was to get into some local pop stuff? On the third track there's a girl in the window, to translate the title, but for all that she is audibly the daughter of a now matron from Ipanema, the music's lightweight. There probably are limits to what even Meurkens can do without flattening a rhythmic profile and impulse which has another enemy on this set.

Pure Jobim, and with only bass and drums beside Meurkens and Alves, "Pasarim" is a good quartet performance. Meurkens didn't need his vibraphone there, but its welcome appearance on the next track might makes one pine for it elsewhere. Even without the numbing string arrangement, there is a shortage of variety. Still, the very interesting Alves plays atmospheric piano on Toninho Horta's "Mou Canario Vizinho Azul", and there's Paquito's clarinet on Meurkens's "The Peach", following up his handsome-toned work on "Lingua de Mosquito" by playing in unison with the harmonica player. There's not much spirit of adventure.

The pianist and rhythm contribute an interesting middle section to the closer, "Piano na Manguiera", co-composed by Jobim, and while the Brazilian string and percussion instruments remind that all through this set there have been indications of very considerable resources in the studio, there's overall a lack of emotional commitment. There are examples of wistfulness as one might hear it in sheer background music.

It is deeply to be regretted that on more than half the music on this disc the apparently great potential of what was present was sunk under very ordinary ambitions, to what, at a certain level of expectation, must be deemed mediocre effect. The best bits couldn't easily be repeated, perhaps, but it's a poor enthusiasm for Brazil which lets the music it inspires succumb to ordinariness. It's light, it's tuneful, it's undemanding of the listener and made too few demands other than technical ones of the performers.


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