I last recorded Thelonius Monk‘s “Blue Monk” (which Monk originally released in recorded form in 1954) for my solo acoustic CD “The Act of Being Free in One Act” in…

I last recorded Thelonius Monk‘s “Blue Monk” (which Monk originally released in recorded form in 1954) for my solo acoustic CD “The Act of Being Free in One Act” in 1994 as part of a medley that included Jimmy Reed’s “Let it Roll” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” That recording was done on a standard-tuned Lee Oskar G harp played in second position.

Yesterday I tried playing the piece in second position on a country-tuned harp–that is, a standard tuning with the draw 5 reed tuned up 1/2 step. The harp was supplied by Ben Bouman in the form of a customized Seydel 1847 in the key of C. I was immediately excited by the much-expanded chord voicings that the country tuning offers.

Thelonius Monk, 1947

Thelonius Monk, 1947

So I sat down (and stood up) and ran through a few takes on the piece with the Zoom H4 running. The recording below is my sixth take from that session. The recording was done in an untreated bedroom in the house I’m renting this week on Cape Cod, and the sound is a little boomy, but the lines and chord voicings are clear. I applied some EQ, compression, and limiting to the recording to help reduce some of the worst effects of the untreated room, but otherwise you’re hearing exactly what I played, without overdubs or editing.

As I did in 1994, I’m overblowing the harp where necessary in this performance to get pitches that otherwise don’t exist on the instrument. That specifically means the flatted 6th (overblow 4) and 3rd (overblow 6) in the second octave; the 5 overblow, which would produce an F# (major 7th) in the second octave on this harp, isn’t needed because the country tuning includes the note. Any other sharps or flats can be achieved with bending, which is how all the chromatic chord shifts on this piece are done.

The fact that all the notes in the melody (and the improvisation) could be played as overblows raises the question of why I didn’t just do the whole thing on a standard-tuned harp, using overblows where necessary to complete the melody. The reason is this: there’s no way to get all those cool chord voicings on a standard-tuned harp, and overblowing doesn’t change that. Check the recording out and see if you don’t agree: country tuning is the way to go with this piece on the diatonic harmonica.

“Blue Monk” recorded live by Richard Hunter, July 3 2015

6 Comments

  1. I think there are a lot of unrealized jazz potential in the “country”-tuned harmonica. Sebastian Charlier and his students make extensive use of this tuning, which they call “accordage lydien” (i.e., Lydian tuning).

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