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.

AAJ: You started playing music very early. As a youngster, did you have your own combos, play in school bands?

HM: School band was one thing. I had a very inspiring, helpful music teacher. In Germany, after what you call elementary school, middle school and high school is one block, called gymnasium. All the years I went there we had a great music teacher. And in the school big band I went through a lot of instruments. You could borrow instruments, take them home, check them out for a few weeks. So, I had that, and I had my little garage band. When I started to playing vibes, I found a jazz band in the Hamburg area to play with.

AAJ: How did you wind up at Berklee? Was there a competition or something?

HM: Well, there were several things. First of all, Berklee was and maybe still is the most visible American jazz school. If you wanted to study jazz in the States, Berklee was the thing to do. Another thing is that Berklee was the only school that offered vibraphone as a major. You didn't have to be a percussion major and go through all the percussion instruments, which I also do not play.

AAJ: Was Gary Burton there?

HM: Yes, but he was on a leave of absence, so I never studied with him. But that was the only school that actually offered vibes as a major. I don't play percussion, never did. I played a little drums as a kid, you know, but as far as vibes major, Berklee was the only school. So those are the two reasons.

AAJ: How long were you at Berklee?

HM: Three years.

AAJ: Of course, you'd heard Brazilian music long before then; your parents played it on the record player, and I take it that your interest in that music developed further while at Berklee?

HM: Well, it was a process, actually. I'd heard it before and I'd liked it before, but it just grew on me. Berklee was really be-bopy. There was a little Brazilian here and there, but Berklee was mainly a hard bop place at that time.

AAJ: That was...?

HM: '77 to '80. That was definitely Charlie Parker transcribing and all that. That's what we did then. Brazilian music wasn't really a topic. There were a couple of guys, but Berklee was not really a Brazilian period for me.

AAJ: And then?

HM: I went back to Germany for a year and a half, then to Brazil, and then back to Germany for eight years before coming to New York.

AAJ: Coming to the U.S. from Germany, of course, meant negotiating a second language as a student. I realize that most Europeans know English, more or less...

HM: English was fine, that's a school language.

AAJ: But going to Brazil, to actually live there for an extended time and gig—that meant picking up Portuguese, not such an easy language to learn, I'm told.

HM: I learned Portuguese when I was there, and then later on.

AAJ: A reference to your Brazilian wife?

HM: Yes, you have to know how to speak Portuguese in Brazil, because people don't really speak English. Now it's better than when I was there, but still, English does not really help you. But that's part of the whole deal. If you want to learn the music, you learn the language, too. That's a part of it—a very important part.

AAJ: And that was in...?

HM: '81 and '82.

AAJ: You mention sitting in with the local players at Rio de Janeiro's storied Bar 21. Did you play with anyone who might be known to fans here in the U.S.?

HM: Not really. I played with some of the original bossa nova guys, some younger guys, but they were the local players, and mostly unfamiliar to Americans.

AAJ: I think that while Americans, although to a lesser extent among jazz fans, tend to lump everything south of the border into the general category of Latin music, that's changing as mainstream Americans become more familiar with the distinctions involved.

HM: Brazilian music is not Latin music.

AAJ: We distinguish, say, Gato Barbieri's Argentine thing from Paquito D'Rivera's Cuban thing from Gabriel's Mexican thing, each distinct from Claudio Roditi's Brazilian stuff, for example. Going a step further, I think you have to be prepared to consider Brazil's regional subcultures—different dialects, different music—to really get the full picture.

HM: You do have a common element in Brazilian music, however. Even though there are many styles, there is a Brazilian swing that is definitely recognizable.

AAJ: In addition to samba and bossa nova, one other Brazilian style, chorinho, or choro, figures prominently in what you term your "samba jazz" music. For the benefit of those of us not quite as familiar with that third genre, could you perhaps explain its distinguishing characteristics, without being too technical, of course.

HM: Bossa nova is a simplified version of samba. With some of the same important elements, but it's slower, with different instrumentation. Choro has that Brazilian swing, too. It's mainly instrumental music, and very much comes out of Western classical piano music. It was composed by great piano players, resembling baroque as well as other influences. So it was originally piano music, they found its instrumentation, with the little cavaquinho and the seven-string guitar.

It's instrumental music with a lot of improvisation, but it's usually not the melody guy: it's the seven-string guitar; it's the bassist who plays a counter-line. Those are the things that are improvised. The melody instrument can solo, and does occasionally, but it's not usually done. You just follow the form, A, A, B, A, whatever, while the guitar plays a counter-melody. That's a choro thing.

[In addition to the cavaquinho (a Brazilian version of the ukulele) and a solo instrument like saxophone or flute, the typical choro ensemble usually includes a pandeiro, or hand tambourine as well].

AAJ: You play the Hohner, versus a couple other reputable makes now on the market.

HM: Yes, there are two other companies making good chromatic harmonicas, Seydel and Suzuki. I play the Hohner because that's what I started on, and I just like it. There's sound to it the others haven't got.

AAJ: Harmonicas require a fair amount of upkeep, I understand. On your Web site, you mention a restoration shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Fathead Musical Instruments, run by Mike Easton, where you get your harmonicas re-tuned, or repaired... new reeds, that sort of thing?

HM: They go out of tune all the time. It's a pain. It's usually one or two notes that you use a lot, like G or something. [Mike] has a bunch of my harmonicas—we trade them back and forth. I have several in my bag, and I play one until it goes out. If even one note is flat, you cannot use it. I put it down at the bottom of the bag and grab another. After a while, I have several to send to Mike, and he sends me the ones he's worked on.

AAJ: How many gigs can you expect to get out of a fresh harmonica?

HM: Mmm... that's hard to say. A bunch.

AAJ: Do you have to break in new ones?

HM: I don't ever play a new one: Mike and I just rotate them back and forth. I'm an anti-harmonica freak, not like those guys who go to conventions and collect them. I just don't care about that stuff, that's all. What I do care about is that it's a three-octave Hohner chromatic with that wood tone, because that is the sound that I like.

AAJ: There has been any number of pick-ups and other gizmos created to amplify a harmonica in live performance with a modern combo.

HM: Those are all for the diatonic, for the blues guys.

AAJ: Perhaps more than any instrument I can think of except the human voice, the harmonica requires good microphone quality, and microphone technique seems a crucial element of the instrument in live performance. Do you have any preferences in that regard?

HM: I just use a [Shure] SM58, and later I found a Trace Eliot acoustic guitar amp that just happens to have a great sound for harmonica.

AAJ: That amp is quite small. Between it and your bag of harmonicas, it must make travel a bit easier with smaller luggage than many musicians have to carry.

HM: It's the best I've found in all these decades, but the best thing is to have a really good PA system. That's better than any kind of amp and enhances a really good sound for harmonica—open, clear like Toots, with expansive reverb—that's the sound you want to get.

AAJ: Technically, it's a wind instrument, but I would think that the physical demands of the harmonica are unique.

HM: It's related to the bandoneón. That is the closest relative to the harmonica. With the bandoneón [a member of the concertina family versus the accordion family], if you push in, you get one note; if you pull out, you get another [aka "bisonoric"]. Plus, it produces a single note from a single reed. With the accordion, if you do this [squeezing together motion] or this [pulling apart motion], it's the same. And you get several notes from one bar: that's why they call it an accordion. It's definitely not related to the flute or trumpet or anything like that.

AAJ: I presume you don't smoke cigarettes?

HM: No, but that might not really make much difference.

AAJ: Do you do special breathing exercises?

HM: Not really. I just practice, so I'm playing all the time. You have to remind your body of what it is you are doing. It's a special kind of breathing unlike anything you would do in your daily life. It's very light, very rapid—it's completely specific to playing the harmonica. If you don't play it, you lose it. Harmonica is a bit like sax, or flute or violin: it's high maintenance. You have to stay with it all the time and practice.

AAJ: I'm feeling a bit remiss about focusing on the harmonica to the exclusion of the vibes.

HM: Vibes is a double for me; I play it because I play it, but most of my daily work is the harmonica.

AAJ: When your vibes playing is discussed, the two names I hear mentioned as influences are Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson.

HM: Those would be the two most important.

AAJ: Besides them and Toots, of course, what other musicians, on any instrument, have been important to you in terms of approach, improvisation, feel?

HM: The straight-ahead guys. I liked Toots' sound, but I never copied his lines or phrases. Never. It was guys like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Hank Mobley. You know, the straight-ahead dudes of that era—that was my learning process. Initially being inspired by Lionel Hampton was Milt Jackson, but also not for the line. I could, but I like to play different lines. I like very clear lines. Dexter Gordon, Sonny Clark. 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. I like the line.

AAJ: Miles?

HM: Yes, he had that sound, but again, for the line I would go to early Coltrane.

AAJ: What's next on your agenda?

HM: I'm playing at the Java Jazz Festival.

AAJ: Not for the first time. I see from the title of your latest CD that it made an impression on you. My wife, who very much wants to visit Nepal, has mentioned the Kathmandu Jazz Festival, also known as Jazzmandu, to entice me into the idea. I hear it's really something.

HM: Things are really coming along in Asia for jazz. It's a future market.

AAJ: Do you teach?

HM: Intermittently, if someone asks for a few lessons, but not steady. I wouldn't mind doing it, but it hasn't developed yet.

AAJ: Are there any young jazz harmonica players you like?

HM: There are a handful of good players, perhaps ten or so, who don't simply just sound like Toots. Things are coming along for the chromatic harmonica in terms of being played at an acceptable jazz level. But you still don't have anyone who has created a distinctive style, like Ben Webster versus John Coltrane. There are really two great stylists who sound different on the chromatic: Toots and Stevie Wonder, who is fantastic.

AAJ: Presenting Harmonica in a big band context is a little different for you.

HM: With the harmonica, you either wind up as a guest soloist (like tonight) or the leader, which is kind of a pain. Even when you play ensemble, you have to give the harmonica the first voice: it's the nature of the instrument. It pulls the ear, and you have to give it the melody. The blues guys can function more as part of the band, riffing with the rhythm section.

AAJ: Any other important differences between diatonic and chromatic?

HM: With the diatonic, you bend notes to create one that doesn't exist. With the chromatic, you bend notes to shape them, for dramatic effect.

AAJ: For expressive purposes?

HM: Yes.

AAJ: Is tonguing an important part of harmonica playing?

HM: The tongue is part of the mouth chamber. It can be used a couple of ways: to block off holes, which Toots didn't do, Stevie doesn't do, I don't do. Or you can use a whistle technique, which leaves the tongue free. Then you use it to bend and form notes. You also use it to do a little bit of staccato, but not that much.

AAJ: You seem to be quite focused on composing now.

HM: I think I have something to say as far as composing, and it would be nice to be able to continue to establish that more. I like tunes, songs, compositions, Rogers and Hart, [Antonio Carlos] Jobim. Heavy blowing does not impress me—that's not for me.

AAJ: Any chance of you, Steve Houben and Emil Viklicky getting together for a recording? I have a homemade CD Emil recorded of the three of you performing at the Church of St. Simon and Juda in Prague. Although unfortunately the recording quality wasn't too good, the music itself was great.

HM: Who knows? We're in touch, and we may do it someday. I think it would be better to do it in a studio to get the right sound for that instrumentation.

Selected Discography

Hendrik Meurkens, A Night in Jakarta (Jawo, 2010)

Hendrik Meurkens, Standards Only (Zoho, 2008)

Hendrik Meurkens, A Jazz Celebration (Marsalis Music, 2003)

Hendrik Meurkens, Sambatropolis (Zoho, 2007)

Hendrik Meurkens, New York Samba Jazz Quintet (Zoho, 2005)

Hendrik Meurkens, Amazon River (Blue Toucan, 2004)

Hendrik Meurkens/Mundell Lowe, Mundell's Moods (Nagel-Heyer, 2000)

Hendrik Meurkens/Mundell Lowe, When Lights Are Lowe (Acoustic, 1999)

Hendrik Meurkens/Herb Ellis, Burnin' (Acoustic, 1998)

Hendrik Meurkens/New York Samba Jazz All-Stars, In A Sentimental Mood (A-Records, 1997)

Hendrik Meurkens/Manfredo Fest, Dig This Samba (Candid, 1996)

Hendrik Meurkens, Quiet Moments, (Evidence, 1997)

Hendrik Meurkens, Poema Brasileiro (Concord Picante, 1996)

Hendrik Meurkens, October Colors (Concord Picante, 1994)

Hendrik Meurkens, Slidin' (Concord, 1994)

Hendrik Meurkens, A View From Manhattan (Concord, 1993)

Hendrik Meurkens, Clear Of Clouds (Concord Picante, 1992)

Hendrik Meurkens, Sambahia (Concord Picante, 1990)

Hendrik Meurkens, Samba Importado (Bellaphon, 1989)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Hendrik Meurkens



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