Sunday, May 15, 2011
In the history of jazz there seems to be only a handful of musicians who have excelled in playing it on chromatic harmonica. There may be even fewer who have also mastered playing Brazilian forms, such as samba and choro, on the same instrument. German-born Hendrik Meurkens is a sensitive and lyrical musician who has the soul of a Brasiliero but can easily switch to straight-ahead. Even though he mainly performs on the aforementioned harmonica, he often doubles on vibes, definitely one of the more unusual combinations you'll find on any jazz stage.
I interviewed Hendrik prior to his first set at the Bar Next Door in New York City, before he embarked on a tour that will be keeping him in Europe for the next few months. He was so enthusiastic about discussing his music that the usual interview format has been expanded for this blogpost from two questions to four.
1. Why did you decide on a career in music?
I didn’t decide on a career. It just happened that way. I was interested and the interest became stronger and there was really no room for a regular job basically. So my parents put me in a bank to learn the bank business and after six weeks, I went to my boss and told him that it’s nothing personal but I just don’t have the energy at night after 5:00 to practice so I have to give this up. So it’s really not something that I decided. Just the music became so important that it ended up what I’m doing, although I never really considered a career. It’s more like a calling. It’s not a conscious decision; I just have to do it.
2. What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?
I didn’t decide anything. I just heard it and there it was and I needed to do it. Actually, since I’m self-taught I was never involved in classical music, except for a few piano lessons as a kid. So I never really had any formal education in any other kind of music than jazz, because I picked out jazz; I learned it and eventually I went to Berklee for a few years, but when I got there I already kind of knew what I was doing, I guess, and none of this was intentionally decided. It just came to me, it got stronger and stronger and there it is. None of these things has been a conscious decision.
3. Why did you decide to shift your attention gradually to Brazilian jazz and, even though you still sometimes do, of course, regular straight-ahead jazz, why did you decide to focus on the former style more so?
It was, again, not a decision but something that felt natural. For one thing, it has to do with the instrument. Harmonica in straight-ahead jazz—it’s possible, it has its moments, but for me, it’s not the most comfortable instrument. If were to be a saxophone player, I probably would have stayed right in straight-ahead jazz, because I believe that certain instruments go with certain styles. They just feel comfortable like the violin in classical music or the acoustic guitar in Brazilian music. There are certain instruments that are made for a style, and they get the most of the style and the style gets the most out of the instrument. Harmonica in straight-ahead jazz—I don’t think that’s the ideal carry although there are great things that can be done. But in Brazilian music, it seems that the harmonica is a perfect match. In Brazilian music, I never for a minute felt that the harmonica was not the right instrument to play. In jazz, I’m always happy if I have my vibes on stage, just to give it a little break. So, and again Brazilian being a very melodic music, beautiful songs, I like compositions, I like real standards, real compositions vs. just blowing vehicles. I’m not too taken by, you know, blowing vehicles where the tune is not so important and the solo is everything. For me, the solo is not everything. For me, the composition is very important and the jazz solo is part of a whole picture, but it’s not the main thing for me. So Brazilian music gives me more on that end than jazz, although standards, of course, are beautiful—American jazz standards—but the jazz original compositions, not always to me. They seem to lack depth.
4. You just came back a short time ago from Jakarta. Talk a little about playing jazz samba particularly in front of a non-American or non-Brazilian audience.
The Brazilian audience does not necessarily have to be the perfect audience for my music, because Brazilians have a very clear picture of how they like to hear Brazilian music, and I might not fit that. And also, I’m really not playing Brazilian music. I play my own version of Brazilian jazz which is really neither jazz nor is it really Brazilian music. It’s kind of my version of it. And I travel a lot and there are countries that have a very natural perception of music without any prejudice, without any clichés to be met. The Russian audience is one of them. A lot of the Asian audience are like that. They just appreciate good music. They are entertained by good music, and if they happen to like my music, I take it as a compliment. American and European audiences are more educated, more experienced. They usually have an opinion before they even listen, especially the Europeans. They know a lot about the music and they already come in with a certain load of knowledge that makes them a critical audience. The Asian audience or other audience in countries where they don’t have that much jazz are much more open. They just enjoy it, and for me that is the perfect way because jazz started as entertainment and I hope it will continue as entertainment because that’s what it is. You go to a club, you have your dinner and your drink and you go and listen and enjoy, and it’s not meant to be an analyzed and criticized. That for me is not the right approach. And countries like Indonesia, Russia, other countries in Asia, sometimes South America—they just like it, and that’s a good thing.
To see an example of Hendrik Meurkens playing one of his originals, a beautiful Brazilian choro called "Menina na Janela (Choro No. 5)", on harmonica, click on this link. You can also see him on vibes, playing "Slidin", a straight-ahead original, by clicking here.
For more information on Hendrik's music, including his recordings, and to find out where he's gigging next, check out his website, http://www.hendrikmeurkens.com/.