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Hendrik Meurkens: Amazon River

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One of the great Brazilian Jazz recordings of this, or any era...
I've been listening to Hendrik Meurkens' Amazon River for about a year and I believe it's one of the great Brazilian Jazz recordings of this, or any era. I'm also happy to report that Hendrik Meurkens and Amazon River is one the best bands I've heard in a long, long time.

It all started for me last summer, when a very tall German harmonica player named Hendrik Meurkens with a passion for Brazilian music called me about a website. I didn't know the man, or his music, but I shared his interest in all things Brazilian, and the harmonica, in the right hands. The German hope, as he's sometimes known, told me that he was reactivating his career after some time devoted to his family, and that he had recorded a new CD that featured Paquito D'Rivera, Oscar Castro-Neves, Dori Cayammi, and some of the cats from Trio Da Paz. What's more, the recording included all aspects of Brazilian music, from samba to bossa nova to chorinho. I told him to send it.

I loved the music the first time I heard the CD. Meurkens is a great improviser, and like Toots a master harmonica player. Amazon River is the culmination of his lifelong love of Brazilian music. Although he has recorded Brazilian music many times, including a number of excellent Concord Jazz Cds, this is his first true concept recording, wherein Meurkens focuses on all aspects of the Brazilian sound, supported by both small group and strings.

During a 2004 tour of Germany and Finland with Oscar Castro-Neves, Meurkens began putting the pieces together. Castro-Neves, a Brazilian guitarist/vocalist, served as co-producer. At first, Hendrik envisioned a Brazilian Quartet project with Helio Alves, Nilson Matta and Duduka da Fonseca. But when Oscar came on board, they began recording tracks with additional musicians as well, including Dori Caymmi and Paquito D'Rivera.

The repertoire includes some Jobim, tasty Meurkens' originals, and several by Dori Caymmi, including the melancholy title track, which features Dori's wordless vocal. All the music serves to demonstrate Meurken's lyricism, his mastery of a difficult instrument, and his significant connection with Brazilian music.

Amazon River happily served as my introduction to the Choro. When it comes to Brazilian music, everyone already knows the samba and bossa nova, but most don't know the Choro (Chorino), a Brazilian music style that originated in Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century. It evolved from a blend of such European styles as Polka, Waltz, Mazurka, and the emerging Samba. The result was a sophisticated, polyrhythmic, lively musical form which demanded the best from its performers.

It can also be very fast, and difficult to play. All of the Choros on the CD are Meurkens' originals and no doubt require some serious chops, especially on the harmonica. My goodness, this man really knows his around what has been dubbed "the mouth organ. "The Peach, written for his youngest daugher, Carolina, is a composition that continues to challenge him to this day. When he decided to record it, he wanted a clarinetist who could play the complex, rapid lines that he wrote. Paquito was the only man that fit the bill.

You can listen to a compilation of excerpts from this wonderful new CD here: Windows, Real, Quicktime.

While working on Hendrik's website, I put together a video about Amazon River, that includes interviews with Merkens and Oscar Castro-Neves.

A few months ago, Hendrik invited me to hear his new band, Amazon River. In addition to his long-time pianist, Helio Alves, the group includes two other Brazilians, Gustavo Amarante on bass, and Adriano Santos on drums. Hendrik liked my Amazon River video and asked if I could do a video with his group. Why not!

I ventured east in mid-June, and joined Hendrik Meurkens and Amazon River for their appearance at Trumpet's in Montclair for three sets on a very sticky Saturday night. I knew the music would be good, but I wasn't prepared for just how good.

Helio Alves is one of, if not the best Brazilian jazz pianists playing today. I first heard Helio back in mid 90s, when he was working with Joe Henderson. At the time, the late tenor giant had a Brazilian thing going on, when he recorded his Brazilian jazz CD classic, Double Rainbow (which also featured Oscar). Helio was a good pianst then, but in the past decade, he's matured into a great one. Chops, taste, non-stop invention, his own sound, Helio's got it all.

Bassist Gustavo Amarante and drummer Adriano Santos were new to me, but by the end of the first number that night, A Felicidad, it was obvious that Hendrik had put together a world class rhythm section.

I videotaped all three sets, interviews, rehearsal footage, etc. I plan on doing a documentary about Hendrik, and also some videos of the group.

You can watch the first video, Hendrik Meurkens and Amazon River performing Joao Donato's "A Ra," here: Windows, Real, Quicktime.

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