An Interview with Richard Hunter, May 1997
This interview was conducted by Pete Brunelli, and was published in the American Harmonica Newsletter in August 1997. The interview is presented here in its entirety without editing by permission of the author.
Over the past few years I have learned many things, and relearned even more. One big relearning event happened this winter. I can tell you straight, I know where I was when I heard Charles Mingus for the first time; when I heard Jaco Pastorius for the first time; when I heard Eddie Van Halen for the first time. They were all eye openers. I never knew music, or the bass guitar, or the electric guitar could sound like that. And the music was just pure. In January of 1997 I had the chance to see a local Harmonicist, Richard Hunter. I had not heard a note of his music. I saw his gig on Danny Wilson’s list and talked my wife into going with me. All I knew was a note from a Harp-L friend “He’s great, see him if you can”. I know where I was when I heard Richard Hunter for the first time. It was a little performance space called The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, Connecticut. On a cold New England night in January I found out what the little 10 holer I had come to love could do. The room at the Buttonwood is an acoustic miracle. About 30’x30′ with a stone floor, hard walls, a 20 foot wide wall of windows and an 18 foot celilng. My wife and I sat in the reading room waiting for a sign of the impending show. The sign came in the form of a wail from a chromatic. I have to say that this only confirmed my preconception that I would be seeing a chromatic player in the “Toots” mold. Nothing prepared me for it. No amps, no tux, no chromatic, no intro….. no kidding. About 8 bars into “Peppermint Life” my brain slapped me like a baby’s bottom. Wake up! Stand Back! Take Notes! The next hours were like a trip to MOMA. Just when I thought that I had heard his “bag”, up popped another view. Swinging blues, tone poems, two part baroque soul, and so it went. All coming from a little Lee Oskar harp. And for the kicker, he’s a really nice guy. So open to the audience, in fact, that he appeased the few harp freaks in attendance with the key and tuning for his harps before each number of the second set! That show led to a short review that I posted to Harp-L. I tried in vain to relate what I heard to my Email compatriots. A month later at a performance/clinic conducted by Richard, he mentioned the review. I must have been in some kind of fugue, because I blurted out “Maybe we should do an interview….” I should have known the answer would be “yes”. I met Richard at his home and we ended up with a rambling conversation about life, music, art, and the harmonica.
Richard Hunter: … there was a DownBeat interview, a blindfold test, with Charles Mingus, did you ever read that one? At the end of it he says “…you didn’t play anything by Ornette Coleman, but I’m gonna talk about him anyway…”
Pete Brunelli: Actually… I was a hair’s breadth from bringing a cassette with me and performing a blindfold test here today… maybe another time?
RH: I do that on myself every once and a while. My brother Mark just gave me a cassette tape of harmonica players and I’m going through it.
PB: …that could be, this could be…
RH:… and the first cut on the cassette is Charley Musselwhite’s “Christo Redemptor”
PB: Amazing… I was just listening to that on the way here, It’s on the Rhino Harmonica Masters compilation.
RH: It’s the cut off of the “Tennessee Woman” album… It’s the album that changed my life. The harmonica all the way through it is just screaming at you… how can I put it… it’s halfway between a scream and a moan I guess, then there’s that little bit of sheer joy, where he starts going [scats the motif]…
PB: Was the harmonica your first instrument?
RH: No, the piano was my first instrument. I began playing piano at the age of nine. I took up harmonica at 15. I had been playing keyboard in rock and roll bands, and I didn’t like the sound of the electric instruments that I was playing, I thought they sounded crummy.
PB: Like a Fender Rhodes
RH: I didn’t own a Fender Rhodes, I was playing these inexpensive organs. You know, Farfisas and Elkas and stuff like that, and they just sounded dreadfully weird and bad. If I’d owned a Hammond, maybe I would have felt better about it. But the organs didn’t have a great sound, and I was stuck behind them. It was a big ton of stuff to haul around, and I wanted something that was more intimately connected to something that I could get up and move around, something that had that deep soul thing, that sound of the voice. I didn’t want to play guitar, there were too many guitarists around. I heard Butterfield, actually, playing the harmonica… That was my first exposure to that big, screaming, Chicago sound. It was very exciting.. and I started getting into it and discovered that there was a lot going on in that vein, and the instruments were cheap enough, so I bought an instrument and started playing.
PB: Were you taking pieces and practice pieces from your piano study and consciously doing them on harmonica?
RH: I would say the answer is “Yes”. I was trying to play some of the things that I was playing on piano on the harmonica for sure. Like bebop for example, I played that on the piano before I played it on harmonica. There were a lot of things, eventually, that I played on the harmonica before I played them on the piano. Like fiddle tunes for example. I have never played “Arkansas Traveller” on the piano, and I’ve played it on the harmonica a number of times. I find that the older I get and the more I play, the more I just hear something and want to start playing it on whatever instrument is at hand. Also, you find out as you go down the line what stuff really works on a particular instrument. As a pianist I listen to Bruce Hornsby’s stuff a lot, and his stuff is just so perfectly shaped to the piano. It’s really hard to imagine what aspect of it I could bring over to the harmonica.
PB: You have to find a way to play four-octave chord clusters….
RH: You’d need some way to bring these heavy clusters in. I play along with his records sometimes, it’s not hard to think about how you would play harmonica with Bruce Hornsby, but as far as doing his stuff… I sit down at the piano and try to work out his arrangements.
PB: Does anything that you are playing now come out of your collaboration with Chris Turner?
RH: I learned a lot from Chris Turner, and he was an important source for me. I’ll tell you about the day I met Chris Turner. I was working with Mike Turk. Mike asked me to do a harmonica workshop that he was doing, this was 1976 in Boston. And there was this guy in the audience with an english accent. Turner had previously put an ad in the Boston Phoenix, saying “..I’m the 1976 European solo diatonic harmonica champion, and I’m looking for people to play with…” He was in the audience. Very intense guy, very intense. Dark hair, shaggy beard, glasses… and I said immediately “… are you the guy who put the ad in the paper…”. We talked a little. We ended up going to my apartment with me, and I had a Premier Twin-8 amp that I was using at the time. That amp was a tiny little amp that just had “The Sound”. In a small room that amplifier was just the best. I played a little for him and I said “here, you try it” and he started doing this vamping stuff [Richard plays a chord vamp] It was the first I had ever heard of that stuff, just single notes against big chords. And coming through that amp it was just like Godzilla, I was just blown away. I knew it was important for me to start playing with this guy. Both of us were into free jazz, so we started playing improvised music together. I learned a great deal from Chris. I had been deeply into horn players, deeply into the Chicago blues thing. I had really approached the harmonica as a single note instrument, in particular as a horn. Chris had approached the harmonica much more from the country blues vocabulary, and the idiomatic harmonica vocabulary that capitalized on a lot of the things that were in the harmonica. And I certainly learned a tremendous amount from Chris over the two years that we played together. I began writing solo compositions for harmonica while I was working with Chris. “Golden Mel” was my first solo harmonica composition, and it came very directly out of the vocabulary that Chris Turner was working with at the time on things like his own “78” and “Dancers in the Bulrushes” and some of Chris’s other solo works.
PB: As far as the technical aspects of your playing, certainly they play a large part in your compositions.
RH: Yes, since I compose largely by playing, my technical abilities are a significant factor in what I am able to play. So I work a lot on trying to expand what I can to do technically on the instrument.
PB: From a knowledge of music science, theory, piano training… do you notice that the application is not as direct as many people might expect?
RH: I find that when I compose, what I tend to do is to play something that sounds cool, and then start expanding on that. I have to say that this is a limitation of the music composer. I don’t have a lot of the formal tools that you get in conservatory training for expanding material. For example, look at what Schoernberg was able to do with a 12 tone row. He would run it in mirror inversion, he would run it in retrograde, he would run it in retrograde-mirror. He would do all of these things to extend the row and give him more use for the material. I’m not extremely skilled in those regards. I’m getting a little better at it and learning more about how to extend the material. But I still work largely intuitively when it comes to composing material.
PB: Does the Bartok influence put you in that direction? A suite like Mikrokosmos…
RH: Sure, very constructionist music. In Mikrokosmos he’ll say “here’s a structure built on fourths, we’ll put another structure built on fourths a minor third above that…”, and see what shakes out. The main thing that have from listening to all these different composers is the sense that sense of what sounds cool. I carry a tape recorder around with me all the time, and whenever I play something that sounds cool, I just turn the tape recorder on. And that expands my vocabulary of cool sounding harmonica stuff. You hear certain composers and you just know they really know what sounds cool on the instrument. Like Schoernberg, I can’t say I really enjoy a lot of his music, but I have played some of his piano music, “Six Kleine Klavierstuck” [Six small pieces for piano -PB] for example, and there is no question that he knew what a piano was supposed to sound like, and he knew if I hit this sound here, and this up here, and this up here all at once, the overtones are going to make this piano …speak. I carry a lot of this stuff around in my head, this cool stuff, and when I play something I plug into that coolness. Like “Hymn for Crow” for example plugs into a certain mood of Beethovens’.
PB: A requiem…
RH: Right… it plugs into a certain, simple melody, with moving harmonies underneath it, that Beethoven plugged into. It’s like Beethoven when he’s saying “look, I’m gonna make it easy for you, OK. Here’s what it is”
PB: How about notation, is any of your performance material written out?
RH: In fact, I don’t write down most of my pieces at this point, because I really don’t need to. There are two great values for writing something down. One is so that the piece is recorded in a form that makes it duplicateable. The second is so that you can communicate it to other musicians for ensemble performance. This stuff is not ensemble performance material, and I record it directly on tape which gives me a much richer picture of what it’s supposed to sound like. So I haven’t been doing a lot of writing stuff down. Also, the copyright office doesn’t demand it anymore, and if they don’t demand it, I don’t demand it.
PB: The live performances stick very close to the recorded performances, it’s very much like the pr
esentation and the precision and the demeanor of a recital, with the power and emotion and the sense of the unknown of a rock or blues performance.
RH: My model in this respect is Robert Johnson and people have noted that Robert Johnson’s performances have become very structured and formal. Not in the sense of the feeling of the performance, but in terms of how the piece was put together. He came to a point where he was performing the material very much the same way every time he performed it. An I think, to a large extent, this is the result of doing solo performances. It’s very, very hard in a solo situation to just get up there and wing the arrangement. Who the hell knows if it’s going to work? If it blows up on you, what do you fall back on? It’s like, if it blows up… you’re up there all alone, and “good luck”. The reason that i’m doing arrangements that are played similarly every time now, or that have a defined place in the arrangement for improvisation, is that I need arrangements that will produce the desired effect on the audience. and once I find it I tend to stick with it. The interesting thing is, though, that if I compare recordings of what I did then and what I do now, I find that they do change over time. That without my thinking about it the arrangements tend to change over time. That is sometimes good and sometimes not so good.
PB: When you were working on “The Act of Being Free In One Act”, were you playing with a blues band in Vermont?
RH: I was sitting in a lot, but I didn’t have a regular gig in Vermont. There were a few bands that I could sit in with anytime I wanted to. I did have a semi-regular gig with Patty Casey and Bob Gagnon, a couple of folk musicians. And I am grateful to the Unknown Blues Band…because they made their stage welcome to me whenever I showed up. They didn’t have to do that. They were nice enough to let me play whenever I showed up. So, when I got the yen to play with a great blues band, I could show up and play with them. That was great for me. There was a kind of a Funk- Fusion band called “Anne’s Band”, that was the house band at The Club Metronome in Burlington. That was run by Dave Grippo, the sax player, and by George Petet on guitar. Petet was this monster New York guitar player who moved to Vermont. God, was that guy scary. I’m often glad that I don’t play guitar when I see these guys. I was also welcome to sit in with them. So when I got the urge to play funk, I could go to the Metronome on a wednesday night and sit in with them, and have myself a good old time.
PB: After doing all of this solo material, do you feel liberated by the fact that it’s purely in your court? If you hear something in it that needs to be changed, well, that’s purely within your control.
RH: Composition is an interesting subject in many ways. Because of the things that it brings up, the way people compose. I compose largely through playing. One of the big turning points in my life as a composer was the day I suddenly realized that the stuff that I had just been jamming on the harmonica, that I thought was throwaway stuff, was stuff that actually was music and I should be recording it. And I started carrying around a pocket tape recorder and all of the sudden, material started piling up. That was a big discovery.
PB: The interesting thing to me is that on “The Act of Being Free in One Act”, the music feels very composed. Every track says “I have a purpose”.
RH: Oh, yeah.. that’s true… it’s less composed than you might think. I mean, a lot of that stuff was improvised in the studio. I had a student come in recently who had bought the CD, and it was my first experience hearing somebody else play my stuff. He came to me specifically to work on “The Longing”. I sat here listening to him playing my piece, and he’s playing it right off the record… and I said to him “You know, that’s really great, but these sections here, I just made it up on the spot, and you could do that too.” It was an interesting experience for me to have just improvised something, and have somebody else learning it by rote, as if it was the whole thing, a set composition. Some of the pieces on the first CD are in fact set compositions. “Hymn for Crow” is a set composition, “Golden Mel” is mostly a set composition, “Rock Heart” is largely a set composition. That is, most of it is composed and played the same way every time. “Peppermint Life” is essentially composed, except for about 6 bars of improvisation.
PB: [Peppermint Life] was the first song that I heard you play and it shifts gears hard, almost pushing the listener around. You have a motif, then a very structured arpeggio, then it sounds like Sonny Terry, just power, chugging, wonderful chording, and then it’s back. The three sections of it are an integration of styles in one piece, but there is a continuity to that.
RH: I wrote “Peppermint Life” in 1976, and it was my first chord study on the harmonica. It was the first time I had really looked at how you can voice a line up and down the instrument. At the time I was just thinking of it as I-chords and IV-chords, now I think on the harmonica more in terms of textures and sounds, rather than I-chords and IV-chords. But in second position on a Marine Band, certainly the I-chord and IV-chord are your two big chords. Peppermint life was about that. There were a lot of different voicings, not as many as I use right now, but a lot of different voicings based on that. I don’t remember at what point it assumed the form that it has now, but it was pretty early on, like 1980 or ’81. I was basically playing that pretty much the way I do now. But you know, Sonny Terry, it’s interesting… people mention Sonny Terry fairly frequently with regard to my stuff, and I heard Sonny Terry, but I have never tried to imitate his stuff. Frankly, he’s a little scary to me, he’s so amazing and so fast and so great, and I just listened to his stuff and went “wow…” ya know, and never tried to imitate him.
PB: I meant it more as a generalization, like country blues-folk blues style, as opposed to a Chicago wailing style. Just having that very simple, heavy rhythmic accompaniment. Coming out of the arpeggiated section the scale just drops and it is just “hukka thukka…” which in common conception would have very little to do with the almost Nursery Rhyme motif of the intro. I mean that in a beautiful way.
RH: Well, it’s a very childlike motif, that’s true.
PB: … and the second section could as easily be played by a string section. [the sections] each have their own separate place, but they are interwoven.
RH: The reason that Peppermint life works as a composition, is first of all that the rhythm never lets up, the rhythm is hammering at you from start to finish. It’s either straight quarter notes or straight eighth notes coming at you all the time, with a variety of textures on them and it just never lets up. The second reason it works is that the bluegrass section is pretty astonishing on a harmonica. I think the main challenge in that section is the breathing. It’s not something you are used to hearing on a harmonica… that [scats] coming at you and it jumps up an octave and it’s just like … we’re not in Kansas anymore…
PB: The only chromatic piece you perform is “In a Sentimental Mood”.
RH: That may change. The CX-12 is an instrument that gives me some power on the chromatic that I haven’t had before. I may start doing some more things on the chromatic. I’m thinkin about working on an arrangement of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, and some other jazz things for the chromatic. When I was younger I worked on some arrangements for chromatic that took into account some of the chromatics’ idiomatic possibilities. In particular, I did some things with a “stripped harp” , with the slide off the harp that I may go back to because they are pieces with a lot of power, and that nobody else is doing.
PB: Just that it [Sentimental Mood] is like a single-note trumpet solo. The plunger emulation. swe
eping arpeggiated solos over those changes of what I believe is an under appreciated composition.
RH: To me it’s jus the most beautiful melody I ever heard. There is so much feeling in that melody. The first six notes tear your heart out. I never fail to get the audience’s attention just with the first six notes.
PB: Have you ever heard Nancy Wilson’s version? It runs about two and a half minutes, and you are in tears at the end of it.
RH: No, I haven’t. The recording of that which influenced me the most was Joe Pitzie’s solo saxophone version of it. I love Toots’s version of it on Captured Alive, which is a gorgeous recording. You know, it is a song that has a deeply beautiful quality to it if you just let that melody sing out, it’s hard to do any wrong. What can I say, my audiences respond to it. Probably because I respond to it. Because there is something in it that speaks to me, I am able to speak to them. There are other Ellington pieces that I play, but I don’t think any of them have the impact that that piece has, at least not when I play it. I think of Johnny Hodges playing “I Got It Bad” on the 1956 Newport recording that Duke did. There is a rendition of a melody that is designed to make you wanna lie down and put flowers on your chest because you’ve already heard it all. I can’t get that fat kind of tone, but Hodges could.
PB: As far as that goes, the influences of modern players versus traditional…
RH: Harmonica players…?
PB: Musicians in general. I’ve noticed very few current composers are willing to recognize anyone who’s made music since, say, about 1958. You hear people nod to Little Walter, they’ll nod to Parker, to Gillespie, all with good reason. But you would not hear them give the nod to Bruce Hornsby…
RH: Yeah, right.. well… it’s safer to love people who are dead. They’re not going to steal your next gig. I admire a lot of players, I try to be absolutely clear in my own head as to who’s really great and who’s really not. Regardless of how I feel about them as a person… whether I like their music or not. I really try to respond to greatness in a player. I have two tests for greatness.. one is that I immediately fall in love with the stuff, and the other is that I immediately loathe the stuff. Either way, the guy got some kind of heavy reaction out of me. And if they are getting a heavy reaction out of you it means that there is something in that music that is powerful. It’s hard to think of any harmonica players who’s work I have really loathed lately…. I can’t think of any.
PB: That may not be the best material for the interview.
RH: There are a lot of harmonica players whose work I have enjoyed lately. Wim Dijkraaf’s work… the Dutch player, I’ve heard Mike Turk’s recent stuff and thought it was beautifully recorded and beautifully played. Howard Levy’s stuff is very interesting to me. I particularly liked the stuff he did on the soundtrack of the movie “A Family Thing”. Uncharacteristic of Howard’s work in that he is usually playing really up-tempo in a lot of stuff. On this he really dug in and played a lot of very long, beautiful, flowing stuff, with a big gorgeous sound and a lot of flowing legato and these long notes. It made the whole soundtrack glow, and I really loved that. I loved it partly perhaps because it WAS so different for Howard. You get kinda used to hear Howard do these amazing up-tempo things. It was nice to hear Howard do something that you don’t hear on any of his records. This beautiful flowing ballad playing. I love Will Gallison’s stuff, Toots Theilemans’ stuff. On blues stuff, I really like Kim Wilson’s stuff, he’s so deep in that Chicago thing, you know there’s the guys who play the Chicago thing, and then there are the guys who’s every note is just so perfectly placed in the line with just the right amount of volume and the right attack on it and the right feeling behind it.. and Kim is one of those guys. He makes that stuff come alive. He makes you listen to every one of the notes to hear what he’s going to do next.
PB: He makes it all count.
RH: Right, exactly. He makes every note count. He has something special to say on every note, and I keep listening to him, thinking “what’s he gonna do next.”
PB: On the other end of that, and again with modern players not necessarily getting their due, would be a player like John Popper, who has as many advocates as detractors.
RH: I’m really fond of John’s work. And I think he’s a great guy too, not that it means anything. I mean, Miles Davis, from what I understand, was not an exemplary human being, but his music was great. I think John Popper’s got an awful lot of talent. He has certainly excited a lot of people about the harmonica. I’m grateful that he’s around frankly, because the excitement he’s generating about the harmonica makes it easier for people like me to get the message across.
PB: I think he’s moved the harp placement in a rock combo, which is not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy thing to do with any instrument.
RH: …and that was one of the things that Magic Dick did too. There are some guys on the Harp-L list who compare Popper to Magic Dick disparagingly, but in many ways both of them did the same thing. They both changed the placement of the harmonica in a rock band. What Dick did was really interesting, because on a lot of his work he put the harmonica into the rhythm section, where it’s driving the rhythm, not with chunka-chunka licks, but with these little lines that are just like [scats], pumping up the rhythm. So Dick, in addition to being on top of the band, worked himself into the middle of the band in a lot of their arrangements. That was a great achievement.
PB: Like a horn section
RH: Like a horn section, or like a rhythm guitar chunking out a lick. Not quite like a strum… but like these perfectly placed little lines that just pump the rhythm.
PB: Steve Cropper!
RH: Right, like Steve Cropper. John Popper, clearly, is on top of the band in most situations. He’s a very exciting soloist. I don’t know, a lot of harp players like to jump on Popper. I think that’s just nonsense, frankly. These are guys who spend half their time running around complaining that nobody listens to harmonica players. The finally some harmonica player hits the top of the chart and they are racing to the telephone to tell everybody in the world how terrible he is. This is idiocy.
PB: Nobody would think twice if he was playing what he was playing on guitar. If he was another lead guitar player…
RH: If he was playing what he was playing on guitar he’s be Eddie Van Halen. It’s just ridiculous. I wrote a defense of Popper on the Internet and said that John Popper is the most influential harmonica player of his generation, and one guy wrote back and said “…This is stupid, he doesn’t have half the balls of Magic Dick..” Well, first of all, Popper’s in his early 20’s, Magic Dick is pushing 50. By any measure they are in different generations. I’m willing to concede that Magic Dick was the most influential harmonica player of HIS generation. But Popper is a new generation. Period. The second thing is that Magic Dick hasn’t had a hit on the radio in ten years. Popper’s got hits all over the radio now. The third thing is, so Popper doesn’t sound like Magic Dick, so what?
PB: He’s so young. I listen to him and say “Boy, in 20 years, who knows. I think that there is historical parallax that needs to be taken into account. You weren’t there in ’45, ’46, ’51… Prewar harmonica players may well have had the exact same opinion the first time they heard Little Walter.
RH: Actually, I think Walter was pretty much universally recognized. He was one of the leading R&B artists from 1952 on, after releasing Juke. He had dozens of hits on the Billboard rhythm and Blues charts. And he and Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers used to cruise the Chicago bars, they were called “The Headhunters”. The cruised the Chicago bars looking for pe
oples gigs to steal. The guys on the stage must have died when they saw those three guys walk through the door.
PB: So, do you think that it translated to other harmonica players?
RH: You can hear in the early ’50’s a big difference compared to what they were doing in the late ’40’s. I think Walter clearly was that difference. It’s hard for me to imagine that anybody heard that sound coming out of a speaker and didn’t immediately realize that they were hearing the dawn of a new era. There were some other harmonica players of that era who were very brilliant players as well. Big Walter was a brilliant player. I heard this guy on a compilation CD the other day who I had never heard before. Sounded like Magic Dick, in 1953, with that same very compressed, very clean, very deep blues harmonica sound. Great stuff. But Walter was the guy who really put it over the top. he was the guy with the combination of the voice, the compositions, and the harmonica style to put it over the top. In that respect, Popper is the guy. He’s got the voice, he’s got the compositions, and he’s got the harmonica style that’s putting it over the top. Again, he’s making people sit up and say “Hey, you know, we can do something with this axe”. Like I said, He’s making it a lot easier for guys like me to convince people that I have something that is worth listening to.
PB: You talked about “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, and you also perform your own “Blues for Charlie”, which I found extremely touching. Any particular Mingus era that you like?
RH: The stuff that I heard of Mingus was mostly the stuff that my father was into. That’s the stuff that I have listened to the most deeply. That’s the mid 50’s era Mingus. I like “Better Git it in your Soul”, that stuff. Big, bluesy, Mingus with a lot of neat stuff. You know, Mingus had his own romping, stomping version of the blues.
PB: The best rock band I’ve ever heard…
RH: It’s a great rock band. The band on that album just punches it from one end to the other. [scats “Better Git it In Your Soul”] That’s one that I should work up actually, it would be a wonderful harmonica piece. Mingus also has a way of showing up in some of my favorite ensemble recordings, like the Massey Hall album that Parker recorded in 1949. Mingus is playing bass on that, pretty smoking stuff. Mingus is also on one of my favorite piano trio records, which is Money Jungle. With Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Charlie Mingus.
PB: Outstanding, one of my favorite albums of all time.
RH: It’s like a swing era pianist and two Bop era rhythm section guys and make space music. It’s like… where did this stuff come from. Money Jungle is so weird and so scary. Ellington plays these things on it… you knew he was a harmonic genius, but I didn’t realize how far it could go until I heard him in that context pushing Mingus and Roach out over the edge.
PB: The best kept secret in jazz, each a top ensemble leader, and you put them together with their respective instruments and the results are just…
RH: …are timeless. That one of those records that will always be fresh because the music on it goes beyond any era, any style, it’s just some of the most beautiful, purest and deepest jazz that you could ever hear. It’s a powerful collection of performances, it touches a lot of emotions…. Money Jungle… That’s like Ornette Coleman’s titles you know, “The Jungle is a Skyscraper”.
PB: There is a Charles Mingus documentary, that ends with Mingus’s bass being carted away by a New York City refuse collection truck… and… Money Jungle. This was not about people who were being pushed around, but were still millionaires to show for it. They definitely knew what Money Jungle was.
RH: A tough era for serious musicians in America.
PB: So, on to what you are doing right now… you are working outside of solo performance, with a guitar player?
RH: I’m using John Cain as a guitarist on a number of pieces. mainly for the stuff where the harmonic structure is just too complex to convey adequately in a solo performance. There are tunes where I just want more going on than I can do with a single harmonica. Sometimes it’s not a very complex tune, for example I have a composition “Blue Hunter” that will appear on the next CD which in solo form is a straightforward 16 bar blues, but when I have an accompanist I am able to bring out a lot of voices on the bridge that really have a lot to do with what’s happening. So I like to use John for that stuff. There are some pieces also that just don’t seem to work brilliantly as solo pieces, but you put a guitar behind them and they come alive. So, yeah, I’m committed to the solo form, and I will continue to explore this. To some extent the solo form is a gift to other players. I am showing them what is going on here without anything getting between the message and the listener. In the not too distant future I will be applying this vocabulary to ensemble work. I will add a guitar and a drum, it worked for [Little] Walter, what the hell! And I will expand this vocabulary. You can hear some of the pieces on the first CD, and some of the new pieces that you have heard clearly would work very well with a rhythm section… like “Big 17”. Put a shuffle grove behind that and you’ll sweep the floor with it. But solo stuff is important and there are certain statements in the solo form that I don’t think would work as well in any other context. A piece like Bela’s World, that’s a piece who’s natural habitat is solo harmonica.
PB: In a duet or in a setting with accompaniment, are you relying on the other performer’s knowledge of your piece?
RH: It’s a typical jazz type of thing. The performer has a personality, they understand the structure of the piece, and we work off the structure of the piece. And I try to work off the other performer. If you are going to play with somebody else, you want to be paying a lot of attention to what they are doing. So that you can take each other to a better place, so to speak. That’s an issue, an important issue. One of the easy things about working solo is that you don’t have to deal with a lot of other personalities.
PB: It certainly frees you up if the improvisational urge hits, you’re not looking over your shoulder. if you decide to add an extra verse, you’re not doing it with the distraction of hoping and praying that your accompaniment has figured it out.
RH: I pretty rarely do that, but who knows. Some of these pieces, I do it, what can I say. On the piece that’s currently called “Dig This”, which you heard for the first public performance at the Buttonwood, That piece is still changing every time I play it. I don’t know whether the changes are making it better or worse, but it’s still moving, it’s still changing, it’s going some where. Very strange, don’t you think.
PB: I concur. I don’t see enough of that in music. I have a concern for the lack of flexibility, that musicians don’t have the chance to stretch out. Musicians like Bela Fleck are an exception. He’s designed a way to make fun, great listening music. But his band is free to go out and experiment. Take Monk, players will talk about working a six week stretch with him, and he never played the same solo twice. Rebuilding tunes every night for a month and a half, six nights a week. I don’t know what place there is for that in music any more.
RH: That’s one reason why his compositions tend to hold up so well. Because they do have that sense of being built from the ground up, taking you through something. Something like “Well, you needn’t”.
PB: Out of the Bop tradition, having a head, having a motif, defining it almost more for the audience, and having the ability to reconstruct, deconstruct and compose improvisationally.
RH: The thing about that stuff, the heads are so beautifully constructed that you feel you have to reference them in the improvisation.
PB: When [Theolonius Monk] plays Ellington, an album of a complete set of Ellington pieces, tha
t showed me how that can free up the performer. Having something like A-Train, one of the best known heads in all of modern music. Saying, here’s A-Train, heres the head, and then… Whooosh. Or not, how much do you want left? Maybe none…
RH: I wanted to say one or two more things about the solo stuff. One of the biggest hurdles that I have had to overcome with this material is the confidence that is needed to go out an perform. The confidence to stand up in front of an audience and put out two hours of solo harmonica. People have not done it before for what may be good reasons. Every time I go out to do this stuff, I have to tell myself that this is important work, that this is new, and that I have to go out and play to the strengths of the material and just let it happen. That I can’t try to shout the audience down, that I have to play with skill, and subtlety, and I have to let the material breathe as well as myself. That’s a big battle. There have been occasions when I have lost it. I’ll go into a place to play, and the audience doesn’t seem to be quite in tune with what I am doing. And all of the sudden I have lost the confidence in the material and I start trying to pander to the audience and do something different. And it just doesn’t cut it. A big part of this stuff has been the development of the confidence to actually let it go, to let it happen.
PB: Do you think that part of the audience part of it has to do with harmonica prejudice. The concepts of it being a novelty instrument.
RH: Well, that works for me and against me. When I go out there, and try to sell somebody on this stuff, the hardest thing is getting them to listen to the CD. Once I get them to listen to the CD, it so shatters their expectations. Like what you said in your internet review of the Buttonwood performance. Their expectations are completely shattered, and at that point, I own them. They will write about me. But I just went through a nine month drill with Harvard magazine. I told them I was an alumnus, and they always publish reviews and blurbs about alumni work. So I sent them a CD and the editor says “well… I don’t have a CD player”. This is their music reviewer. “I don’t own a CD player”!! That began a conversation which lasted for nine months, in which I had to validate my life for these guys. But I went through it because they are an international magazine with a sophisticated audience, and I thought it was worth getting an article in there. I just got a call thursday telling me that they are running a good review of it. But what I had to do, finally, was to make a cassette copy of the CD and send it to the guy, with a copy of “Jazz Harp”, with a list of all the stuff I’ve published, with a list of everything I’ve ever done. And I said “is this enough?”
PB: Like, “Have I finally overcome the “crackpot factor”?”
RH: It just took so long to get that through, but once they listened… that’s the battle. The battle is getting them to take the first step and put it on. Once they put it on the CD player, I know that I’m going to get through to them. I know that by the time the first piece is over, they know that they are on to something different. That it may not be their favorite, but that they know that it’s real. So the battle is getting them to listen. But again, I have that shock factor going in my favor.
PB: Hopefully, the word of mouth will help. I have played the CD for people who may have given it a sideways glance, and they love it. It’s music, and reaction to music is a very personal thing. I have noticed a “modern” concept of people not wanting to be challenged in their listening.
RH: We are also in the era of the stadium performance, and in the era of the stadium performance, what can you communicate in a stadium? Henry Bottinger wrote a book called “Moving Mountains”, which is about public presentations, and in that book he says that when an audience reaches a certain size…the bigger an audience, the less intelligence, collectively, they show. When you move up to a stadium, you have an audience whose collective intelligence has reached a pretty low level. What are you going to hear in that stadium? You’re not going to hear Bach on a harpsichord. And my music, this solo stuff, in terms of it’s scale, is much closer to Bach on a harpsichord than it is to Muddy Waters.
PB: Parlor Music…
RH: Parlor Music, … it’s Chamber Music. Chamber music is an incredible experience. When you are sitting in a room the size of this [kitchen] and you are listening to a chamber music trio do their stuff, it’s an overwhelming experience. The sound levels, the ideas, the whole thing just blows you right down. I’m very enthusiastic about this, Pete, because I just started listening to chamber music and went to some performances and was completely blown away. But, it’s not the popular music of our era, which is about ever larger audiences, and hence about ever less complex ideas.
PB: I saw Anthony Braxton, 1977, at Real Art Ways in Hartford, playing to 25 people in the main foyer, and it was an exemplification of that. An this was not Anthony playing standards.
RH: It was his solo stuff?
PB: Oh yeah, and it was just…, you were saying challenging… challenging 25 people in a room to feel and understand. You can’t do that in front of 10,000 people.
RH: How did it work?
PB: I think it worked extremely well. I went in having heard his recorded music and not understanding it, and I left with some understanding. You can’t present that to 10,000 people at a time. There’s and independence in the audience that comes from not being surrounded by 9,999 other people.
RH: My goal, right now, is to build an audience worldwide that is large enough to support this. I think that it is going to be very hard to get 10,000 people in a room together to support it. So I want to build an audience worldwide that I can reach through vehicles like the internet, and through databases of names and addresses, so that I can sustain this. I think that moving towards a trio format would help to increase the potential audience for the music, and that’s something I will consider. Right now I have to be patient, and go one person at a time, and build an audience with this stuff. And keep challenging them, and myself. ’cause, by definition, when you get this kind of an audience, they’re kind of demanding. They want to see… OK, I saw that yesterday, what’s now?
PB: A trap that exists is players that have popularized their performances in order to reach larger audiences, and have never returned. That’s a sad commentary
RH: …but real. Well, fortunately, I make a good living from my job, and I don’t have to popularize my material. I can, ultimately, tell the world to “go away”. The difference between art and commerce, one of the differences, is that with art you speak from the heart and then see if you can get that across to an audience. With commerce, you try to figure out what the market is, then you try to supply the market what it wants. They are very different approaches. I think that popular music is mostly about trying to define a market, and provide that market with goods and services that it wants already. Art is about trying to see whether your message connects with an audience. And it might not.
PB: That challenge, I believe, has been removed by mass market media and mass market music. Finding a sound or a type of song form, and seeing a commercial reaction, and the whole idea of a record selling a certain number. Then you can start lining up similar product.
RH: And after a while the audience gets fed up with it. Although, in pop music which is mainly aimed at younger audiences, there is always a new, younger, audience that hasn’t been exposed. And you can always sell them on the latest version of something that’s been done previously. There we are talking about commerce, not art. There’s room for that, I guess. I think there’s room for what I do as well. I am one to proceed in attemptin
g to create that audience that will respond to what i’m doing.
PB: Unfortunately, the model we just described, applies more now than ever to the Jazz market.
RH: And less than ever…
PB: In what way?
RH: The tools of mass marketing can also be used for very targeted marketing. The tools that allow you to reach the worldwide audience allow you to reach two people in Jakarta, and five people in Tokyo, and three people in Madagascar, and five people in London. You know… and to cobble together this audience, worldwide, that can appreciate your work, and respond to it, and with whom you can stay in touch economically and quickly. The tools of the database, computers, and the internet, they allow you to maintain these worldwide connections and to expand on them.
PB: The groundwork is laid, and the performances actually occur [now].
RH: The mechanisms by which people will contribute to that performance have yet to come. But it is certainly feasible that not just in terms of recordings, which are asynchronous means of communication, but in terms of synchronous means of communication, we’re not far off from the point where I can be playing in Arcadia Coffeehouse to 5,000 people spread out all over the planet.
PB: Sure. If it wasn’t for those tools I may not have heard your music ever.
RH: Right, and I wouldn’t have met Wim Dijkgraaf, I never would have heard of Douglas Tate. Already the internet had an impact, and it is going to have a much larger impact. This is very important, very powerful, and it is offering artists who would previously have starved or have been restricted to working in one city like New York, where you’ve got 10 million people together so you’ve got 500 people who can support Anthony Braxton. It will make it possible for artists like that to live anywhere and to reach a worldwide audience, with performances and with recordings. The general level of players is already much better than it was in 1975, much better. That will continue until the general level of proficiency on the instrument is where ordinary everyday players is as high as what you would expect from a guitar player. Where people will listen to some guy playing and will say he is or is not a good player, and will know the difference. The way they know now with a good or a bad guitar player or piano player. Imagine how far away are we from the day when you are going to be able to sit down at your computer, dial a worldwide performance list, and say “Oh, Sonny Stitt is playing in Kansas City tonight, at the Blue Note Cafe… I think I’ll dial that up” And you dial it up, and the next thing you hear is Sonny, in real time, with his band, in Kansas City… wherever you are. How far are we from that day?
PB: Not very.
RH: Not very!
Pete Brunelli is a 32 year old professional scientist and technical writer, and amateur harmonica player. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Sandy and their two lovely dogs. Pete’s dogs can be contacted via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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