Saturday, October 22, 2011

Music Reviews- Rufus Harley and Harmonica Shah

Ultimately all men are brothers. This is apparent when you listen to a lot of different music. Old English/Scottish murder ballads morph into African American blues songs. Herky jerky funk vamps are echoed in Eastern European dance tunes. Hearing the equivalent of “Take it to the bridge!!” in Romanian or Serbian is amusing.
Afro-Cuban son and salsa both influences and was influenced by Senegalese, Gambian and Congolese music. In some respects music is one big swamp of mixed origins.

This was certainly true of the art of famed jazz musician Rufus Harley, who made his mark not just as a passably good composer and interpreter of other people’s work but as the genre’s primary (though perhaps not sole) bagpipes player. That’s right, BAGPIPES. Harley played an ancient instrument that may have originated in North Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, but has since become almost uniquely identified with Scotland and to a lesser extent Ireland. And he played his pipes in such a manner that one wonders why other jazz or blues musicians haven’t picked them up. The really defining characteristic of bagpipes of course is that the musician is able to produce a drone. 

Drones are quite common in much of Indian music and some other non-Western music, including some traditions from West Africa. In the fifties and sixties as Western musicians in various disciplines began to listen to, be inspired by and perform their own versions of “world” music (especially that of India), drones started to pop up more , often in jazz and rock. And in some forms of blues-most famously the North Mississippi styles-drones never went away.  Harley was already a multi-reed player when he saw the Black Watch perform at JFK’s funeral. Inspired, he bought himself a set of Scottish Highland bagpipes and got to work learning how to play. As the results weren’t very pleasing at first he was the subject of many complaints by neighbors. When the police arrived, having hidden his instrument away, an aggrieved Harley would tell the police, “Bagpipes???!! Do I look Irish or Scottish???
Over time Harley became a better musician to the point where he led his own band and proved to everyone that he was not just some gimmicky performer. Similar to many people of his era , he definitely showed a Coltrane debt but like most good players he had his own voice. Unlike other reed players, HIS voice just never needed to stop for air. 
He recently passed but his legacy shows us that a talented person can find inspiration anywhere and use just about any tool to make music. If you like post 60’s jazz, you will like Harley. And if you’re sort of leery of the pipes, give him a listen. You might be surprised by how well the tone of bagpipes can fit in to modern jazz music.  The Constitution is amazingly funky for a piece that doesn't feature a bass. Harley was also featured on the Roots “Do you want more?”  

Although Detroit doesn’t have quite the place in blues lore that Chicago has there were still quite a lot of blues performers who came out of Detroit-most famously John Lee Hooker but also people like Eddie Burns, Little Sonny, Andre Williams (the dirtiest old man that ever existed) and many others. Detroit is also the home of Harmonica Shah. 
Born in the late forties, Harmonica Shah is one of the last real bluesman in America-people that grew up and survived under some very difficult conditions. Born in Oakland, Shah got interested in the blues while he was living in Texas. He started pursuing music professionally when he moved to Detroit. While he was in Detroit he was also working on the line for Ford Motor Company but after some years departed to perform full time. So organized labor’s loss is the music fan’s gain. Unfortunately for Shah, the popularity of the harmonica as lead instrument has declined drastically since the mid fifties, as has the popularity of blues music in general with black people. So you probably won’t see him featured on Vibe’s cover. And obviously Shah is not white or British so don’t look for him on the cover of Rolling Stone either. 
But he’s probably among the best blues harmonica players still around-definitely in Detroit. For a while Shah had a profitable relationship with guitarist Howard Glazer (heard on two cuts here) that reminded some blues fans of previous celebrated harmonica-guitar duos. Glazer had a somewhat limited blues-rock sound that nonetheless worked well with Shah’s thick “Mississippi Saxophone” tone. 
Sadly someone told Glazer he could sing and he went solo. Glazer can’t sing. Not a note. So Shah lost a decent guitarist. And Glazer lost someone who could tell him to stop playing so loudly all the time. But so it goes. Other guitarists who have worked with Shah include Mel Brown and Little Jr. Cannaday, each of who are very different players and FAR more rhythmically adept than Glazer. 
Shah is a good singer and is fun to listen to. The interplay between his voice and his harmonica is very enjoyable. And when the harmonica and guitar trade off, it’s even better. Shah’s voice drips authority and testosterone; it's a far cry from high pitched bleats from gelded boy band singers or syrupy whimpers from R&B sopranos. This is tough music sung by a tough dude. He’s been there, done that and is still standing.  

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