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Hendrik Meurkens: Harmonica Virtuoso

Victor Verney By

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Sonny Clark could play 50 bars of continuous eighth notes and I wouldn't lose interest. That's why he's so important to me. If I were to start playing some other instrument besides harmonica and vibes, I would probably come up playing the same lines.
Although at first Hendrik Meurkens' primary instrument was the vibraphone, he has garnered an international reputation as a jazz harmonica player since picking up that difficult-to-master instrument. Born in Germany, Meurkens came to the U.S. to study at Boston's Berklee School of Music. After returning to Europe for a time, he decided to go live in Brazil to immerse himself in that county's brand of jazz, which he had heard and grown to love. Living in Rio de Janeiro (and learning Portuguese), Meurkens soaked up the sambas, bossa novas, and choros with the local players before returning to Germany again. In 1972, Meurkens relocated a final time to New York City, which he matter-of-factly regards as the center of the jazz universe. As a sideman, he has worked with a wide variety of top performers including Charlie Byrd, Jimmy Cobb, Monty Alexander, Claudio Roditi, Astrid Gilberto, Ray Brown, Paquito D'Rivera, Herb Ellis and James Moody among many others. Meurkens has recorded eight CDs as a leader, most recently A Night In Jakarta (Jawo, 2010).

In early February 2011, accompanied by a fellow Berklee alum, Russian pianist Misha Tsiganov, Meurkens braved the hazards of Iowa winter weather to perform at three venues: two university towns, Pella and Grinnell, as well as Des Moines. Meurkens' Heartland excursion was arranged primarily by Gabriel Espinosa, a professor at Pella's Central College whom Meurkens met through mutual associates such as trumpeter Claudio Roditi and others. Overcoming the challenges of snow, Meurkens gave well-received performances at Central with his quartet and the school orchestra, followed by a show at Grinnell College the next day. Meurkens then performed with the Des Moines Big Band on their usual Monday night gig at a suburban restaurant in a local amusement park, Adventureland. Along with the DMBB, Meurkens fronted a quintet with Tsiganov, Espinosa on electric bass, and two local stand-outs, trumpeter Dave Kobberdahl and drummer Tim Crumley. Prior to that evening's show, despite the road trip's travel rigors, Meurkens was in his customary good humor.

All About Jazz: Thanks to your website, which has a very complete biography, and the wonders of the Internet, I've been able to learn quite a bit about you and your background. So, we can skip the usual throat-clearing questions about where you were born, etc., and we can get right to the good stuff. You've certainly established yourself as a worthy successor to Toots Thielemans.

[The liner notes for A Night In Jakarta cite, among others, AAJ's Jim Santella, who is also in accord with that assessment. Readers are invited to check out Meurkens' web site, as well as his AAJ profile].

Hendrik Meurkens: Well, that would be nice, but Toots is still in a league of his own. He established the sound of jazz harmonica; there was no jazz harmonica before. Larry Adler is not really jazz.

AAJ: Right. The first serious harmonica player I encountered, growing up in Buffalo, New York during the '60s and '70s, was Paul Butterfield. Until I heard Thielemans, that seemed about as far as one could go, jazz-wise, on the harmonica.

[Long-time leader of a Chicago blues band that underwent several incarnations, harmonica player/vocalist Paul Butterfield pushed the envelope in the direction of jazz for a time. The title track of East-West (Elektra, 1966) and an extended version of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" on that same album are prime examples. Subsequent jazz-inflected recordings saw the addition of a full horn section, featuring alto saxophonist David Sanborn and tenor saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie.]

HM: Well, for starters, the diatonic harmonica is not chromatic. They really are two completely different instruments. Different concept, different problems, different strengths. Two instruments, not to be put in the same bag. They are close, but—for me, I cannot play diatonic harmonica. I cannot.

[Butterfield played the Hohner ten-hole "Marine Band" diatonic model; Meurkens plays the Hohner three-octave chromatic.]

AAJ: Really?

HM: No, I cannot play the diatonic harmonica and I wasn't really interested in it. I dutifully tried it out, but it's just not my instrument. The notes are in different places, different setup. You can't just pick up a blues harp or a chromatic, if you play the other one. No way: you have to relearn.

AAJ: So you can't necessarily switch from one to the other.

HM: Definitely not.

AAJ: Your Dutch father and German mother played a lot of records—did either of them play an instrument?

HM: My father played a little piano as a kid. He knew two or three tunes, nothing really.

AAJ; He just sort of noodled around on it?

HM: Oh, yes: he noodled. There was a piano in the house, but it was untouched, basically.

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