The New Harmonica King...forget John Popper, that soulless technician.
I am a child of the '70s. In some respects that is terribly unfortunate. I listened to a light year of bad music in that decade before discovering Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, Santana, ZZ Top, The J. Geils Band, and Ten Years After. Listening to Beaker Street on KAAY— The Voice of the South, I first heard the J. Geils Band and Magic Dick playing on Full House Live. I thought, "Holy Shit! Where are all of those notes coming from? That is soooooo Bad!"
Speeding ahead ten years when I discover Marion Walter Jacobs and in his self-destructive genius, I heard the apex of an art form. "Juke" and "Off The Wall" were masterpieces of the blues produced by a man who was hit in the head with a brick and killed in the late 1960s at the age of 38 years old.
Since, I have heard very few harmonicats that could possibly have a pissing contest beyond a dribble with Little Walter Jacobs. Then, while listening to National Public Radio the other day, I heard Jerry Portnoy blowing that fat, warm, penetrating harp sound on a contemporary disc touted to be a jazz crossover on the harmonica (no mere Toots Theilmans imitation, something else altogether different).
The song I heard was "Sentimental Journey." The sound was what you would think you would have heard on Maxwell Street in Chicago, circa 1943. The disc has proven to be a delight. Jerry Portnoy inhabited the harmonica chair in Muddy Waters' band, replacing Mojo Buford in 1976. Portnoy went on from there to form The Legendary Blues Band with Pinetop Perkins. In the mid-'80s Portnoy left the Legendary Blues Band and retired for a short time only to come back and help found Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. In the early '90s, Portnoy toured with Eric Clapton and pursued his own solo desires. Down In the Mood Room is the most recent product of those desires.
Fusing electric Chicago Blues and New York Jazz, Portnoy produces a seething inferno of rocking momentum. Portnoy tries his hand successfully at several subgenera. Horace Silver's "Doodlin,'" the swing-era "Sentimental Journey," and "So Slow" are played with that full vintage tube amplifier-bullet mike sound that overwhelms the listener with a flood of sound. Duke Robillard sings the Louis Armstrong classic "You Rascal, You" (the only song sporting a chromatic harmonica, and there only in the introduction) and Portnoy's own "Money" with great effect. Portnoy himself contributes vocals on "Lazy" and "Endless Road." Out of this world.
There is a difference between sheer technical ability and virtuosity. Technical Ability is like the trendy mixed drink of the moment, flashy and intriguing, but in the end shallow and boring (John Popper, for instance). Virtuosity is like a very fine and complex Port, always revealing the new and the old in a taste. Jerry Portnoy is every bit the virtuoso and should be honored as such. I suggest that you, gentle reader, purchase Down In the Mood Room, que up track two and turn the volume to eleven on a scale of ten.
Personnel: Jerry Portnoy: Harmonica, Vocals; Duke Robillard: Guitar; Marty Ballou: Bass; Steve Ramesey Drums; Doug James: Baritone Saxophone, Baritone Clarinet; Gordon Beadle: Tenor Saxophone; Troy Gonyea: Guitar; Bob Malone: Vocals; Mark Davis: Violin, Mandolin, Mandocello.