By Devon “Doc” Wendell
I rarely get any real bebop influenced music in the mail anymore and it’s depressing. I’m always hoping and waiting but usually end up in a state of disappointment as yet another boring fusion CD blasts blandly in the background of my crummy office.
I am so thankful for Harmonicus Rex; harmonica genius Hendrik Meurkens’ new album due out on February 29th. Although Meurkens is considered to be a Brazilian jazz artist by many; he certainly made a name for himself over the years recording and touring with such versatile jazz icons of the New York City jazz scene as Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Herbie Mann, Paquito D’Rivera, James Moody, Charlie Byrd,
And Harry “Sweets” Edison. This is his first “straight ahead” jazz album in 15 years and man, does it swing hard. Meurkens is joined by the one and only Jimmy Cobb on drums, Dado Moroni, piano, Marco Panascia, bass, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Anders Bostrom on alto-flute.
“Mundell’s Mood” (dedicated to Mundell Lowe) hearkens back to the days of Meurkens’ hero Charlie Parker. All of those glorious bebop elements are in place and cooking here. Meurkens’ chromatic harp lines remind me of Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham in places. His knowledge of the bebop language is astonishing. John Magnarelli’s trumpet solo is masterful, dynamic, and wonderfully thematic. Dado Moroni’s harmonically complex piano comping and solos are reminiscent of the late great Wynton Kelly.
“Slidin” has that early ’60s Blue Note Records vibe. The motif is syncopated and funky. Anders Bostrom’s alto-flute weaves in and out of the subtle yet perfect rhythm backing laid down by Jimmy Cobb and bassist Marco Panascia. Meurkens plays some mean blues based lines that you might imagine Booker Ervin blowing on tenor sax in the 1960s. Any harmonica player (including myself) will tell you that this is no easy feat.
The rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” is gentle yet burning. Its arrangement is close to the Miles Davis version recorded in 1956 with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Of course there are shades of the great Toots Theilman in Meurkens’ approach to the chromatic harmonica but only is spots. For the most part, Meurkens’ tone and phrasing are similar to Miles Davis’ muted trumpet work of the late ’50s. His note bending is superb. The band’s relaxed groove is just right for this chestnut as it is on the beautifully soulful ballads “Afternoon” and “A Summer In San Francisco”; both written by Meurkens.
On Milt “Bags” Jackson’s “SKJ”, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli shows off his chops. There’s no “out” playing or a bunch of young cats who don’t respect or understand bebop that is so common these days. Meurkens’ solo is so sincere and melodic. This is the real deal and no one else could have filled that drum seat better than Jimmy Cobb. His subtle nuances will blow you away if you take the time to catch them all.
Meaurkens’ harmonica sounds like the greatest singer in the world on the Rodgers and Hart standard “Falling In Love With You” and the band keeps that bop groove churning with love and devotion.
Pianists Dado Moroni often establishes the mood and tone of each piece on the album as he does on a loving and joyful reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring”. This features Meurkens’ greatest solo on the entire record. He mimics some of Hubbard’s original trumpet lines with an ease and confidence that is relentless. Joe Magnarelli’s flugelhorn chops are potent and exploratory.
Jimmy Cobb’s drumming on the Meurkens original “Mean Dog Blues” is so wonderfully slick and elegant. Anders Bostrom’s alto-flute dances around the stated melody line with imagination and grace.
Out of all of the versions of “Darn That Dream” I’ve heard throughout my life, the one on this album is easily one of my favorites. Again, Meurkens’ harmonica sounds more like a trumpet. His sense of breath and dynamics are a reflection of his deep understanding of the song’s lyrics and meaning. Jimmy Cobb’s brush work here makes every aspect of life better.
“What’s New” is another ballad that has been done by a countless number of jazz musicians for more than half a century but Meurkens and the band breathe new life into this standard. Meurkens is so fearless and adventurous as only a true master can be. Dado Moroni’s piano accompaniment is soft and sweet. This music will give you goose bumps and stay with you forever.
Harmonicus Rex is one of the purest bop inspired albums I’ve heard in a long time. There’s a love for the music that comes through in every carefully crafted twist and turn. Hendrik Meurkens and his magnificent band have done their homework and prove to the world that “straight ahead” bop fueled jazz is far from dead and is still open to new ideas. This is a stellar recording not to be missed.