Hendrik Meurkens: Harmonica Virtuoso
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 erathat 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.
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: 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 methat's not for me.
AAJ: Any chance of you, Steve Houben and Emil Viklický 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.