I did not expect to enjoy this recording so much. A duo recording is a tough thing to pull off over the course of a dozen songs. It’s much too easy for either or both players to repeat themselves, to fall back on a familiar trick bag, to simply run out of inspiration under the load of the hard work involved in keeping the momentum and ideas flowing with only two players. Knowing Richard and Dennis and their respective works, I expected to hear good music, but I didn’t think I’d hear a record that would go on my permanent rotation list. Well, I’m writing this morning to advise that I listened to this CD straight through on a long drive last night, and my expectations have been wildly exceeded. This is a fine recording that deserves a place in every blues lover’s collection, let alone every harmonica player’s.
The basics first: the CD consists of 12 songs, mostly well known blue standards, apparently recorded live with Richard on guitar and vocals (and possibly second harmonica on some cuts) and Dennis on a variety of mostly diatonic harmonicas, some recorded acoustically, others with amplification. When I say “apparently” here and elsewhere in regard to how a certain arrangement was performed, the reader should remember that I don’t have a lot of documentation to support my guesses. The packaging is minimal to the point of being laughable; the CD is sold in a clear plastic slimline CD case with no graphics or notes, save for the names of the players and the song titles printed on the CD surface. I suppose this saves money for everyone, but this is one recording that deserves the full treatment where graphics are concerned.
The sound of the recording is clear, thought not stellar, but even its limitations have great charm. It’s obvious that the songs were recorded in a relatively small space, live; you can hear the sound of the room on every cut. It’s not the very best-sounding room in the world, but its sound adds greatly to the record’s impact. The sense that the listener is sitting right in front of two musicians playing brilliantly together in a real space is very strong, and it results in an intimate and memorable listening experience in these days of manicured recordings created entirely within the artifical environment of a computer.
The playing is remarkably consistent and strong from song to song. The basic approach is established right away: Richard sings and plays rock-steady rhythm, including bass lines, on the guitar, and Dennis plays harmonica, often switching from amped to acoustic sounds on a single song. Some songs include doubled harmonica; in the absence of liner notes, I can’t say whether these doubled parts were overdubbed, or played live by Richard. The amazing thing about Richard’s guitar work is not its steadiness per se, or even the no-fuss grooving he lays down, but the fact that he makes this very basic approach interesting throughout the course of the entire CD, even without a single guitar solo. His singing is plenty interesting, with excellent phrasing and feel, and lots of attention to the meaning of the words.
That brings us to the other half of the musical goings-on: Dennis’s harmonica work. I can sum it up in a few words: it is some of the best and most original blues harmonica work I’ve ever heard. What is most exciting about Dennis’s work here is the incredibly broad range of influences he has forged into a blues style that is at once fully traditional and terrifically innovative. Dennis has mastered every technique for making sounds with a harmonica that I have heard, and he employs his knowledge brilliantly. There is barely a note on this record that does not get special treatment. At various points Dennis pulls off astonishing imitations of muted trumpet,trombone, and baritone saxophone. These, like the rest of his treatments, sound utterly native to the harmonica in his hands. His choice of notes is like no other player I know, and Dennis has integrated a swing horn conception into the vocabulary of blues harp in a completely convincing, seamless way. Even more remarkable, he has integrated the sound and melodic vocabulary of Chicago blues harp into swing, making amped blues harp–including chromatic–sound completely natural as a swing horn. His tone, whether amplified or acoustic, is exemplary. I am certain that every harmonica player can learn something from Dennis’s work on this record, and most can learn an awful lot.
The songs are mostly well-known traditional blues pieces, including “Deep River Blues”, “Messin’ with the Kid,” “Jambalaya,” “People Get Ready” (the best version of this piece I’ve heard), and Little Walter’s “Last Night.” Here again, the familiarity of the titles was to me an ominous sign of boredom to come. But Richard and Dennis have taken fresh approaches to every piece, from the grooves and harmonies on up, and the result is deeply satisfying, original takes that add to the listener’s pleasure and insight into the beauty of these familiar songs.
I could go on for days about the pleasure of each track on this modestly produced CD, but my point here is to point out a wonderful gem that might easily be overlooked, not to analyze every song to the last note. I repeat that this CD is a beautifully conceived and performed record, and harmonica players will enjoy it as much as they learn from it, which is to say considerably. If the reader hasn’t already rushed to the Internet to order it, it can be found at http://www.dennisgruenling.com/misccds.htm.
Listen to the samples on that page, and get your credit card ready. Anyone who loves blues or harmonica should have this record in their collection.