For the last few weeks I have been listening to Bruce Kurnow's new release "Harmonicaland" which is really a tremendous recording that harmonica enthusiasts will particularly enjoy. There are 12 original pieces by Bruce for harmonica which cover a very wide range of styles. Bruce uses a variety of harmonicas including chordomonicas, harmonetta and his "main axe," diatonic Marine Bands as well as the occasional addition of keyboards and Kaen, described as a "Southeast Asian harmonica" in arrangements that range from solo harmonica to carefully orchestrated multi-harmonica pieces. With the very eclectic choice of pieces this album is a rare example of how wide a range of styles and sounds the harmonica can achieve. Bruce certainly can stand out amongst the masters of diatonic just playing blues alone, but it is the ingenuity and genius of the composition and arrangements that make this album a real winner. It is not just another great player playing great blues, classical or other style, but a mix of a great player, great compositions and great arrangements that show the instrument off more than the performance and composition that really make this album a winner and worth having in your collection. -- Michael Polesky / Owner, Harp-L
Exactly where is Harmonicaland, anyway? Somewhere between Poughkeepsie and Pittsburgh? Au contraire--Bruce Kurnow's excellent Holidays in Harmonicaland exists in a rarefied world of brilliantly bluesy interpretations of seasonal favorites. The album cover suggests a land of mountain beauty--Colorado, perhaps? No matter. . . you, too, can live in Harmonicaland, if you can just steal an hour away with this notable new instrumental release.
Harmonica music for the holidays? You may think that harmonicas should be reserved for lonely cowboys around the campfire, or you may have trouble imagining seasonal songs streaming from some urban blues bar. If you think again, you will realize just how well matched the harmonica is with the holidays. After all, the blues harp has an incredible voice--textured, sassy and soulful like that of a human, but better, because the harmonica produces built-in harmonies. It can explode with joy or drop into an introspective growl. Brilliant! By the way, this album is not exclusively harmonica music; Kurnow also provides some creative keyboard touches.
One small caution: You really do need to appreciate the blues to embrace this CD. Although the styling here is not entirely blues (for example, "I Wonder as I Wander" and "O Come, O Come, Immanuel" are largely sweetly gentle piano pieces with the harmonica jumping in to provide a single-note melody line and cool harmony accents), most numbers do jump with dynamic blues. This jubilant/melancholy music speaks from the heart. I listen to a lot of holiday music, and while jazz is a very popular genre, blues is far rarer. In addition, I have never previously reviewed a Christmas album founded upon the harmonica. As a result, Kurnow's Holidays in Harmonicaland is an exceptionally fine treat!
The artist's harmonica expertise is extraordinary, and his arrangements for the 15 tracks are creative, colorful, and often moving. The pieces are largely ancient carols, but include some nice surprises like "Avinu Malchenu," "Dreydl Blues," and Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." Every single track speaks to me. That being said, I especially enjoyed Kurnow's treatment of "I Saw Three Ships"; the growling blues foundation sporadically releases blazing melody lines. His fiery opening "Carol of the Bells" is another innovative winner. Thanks, Bruce Kurnow, for an outstanding journey into the unexpected. Your Holidays in Harmonicaland has made my holidays extra-special this year.
Bruce Kurnow breathes new life into traditional holiday hymns, carols, and tunes. In so doing, he takes to us Harmonicaland--a place that includes classics from the Highlands, blues from the Lowlands and a broad base of ethnic voices and rhythms. Clearly Bruce proves that the harmonica can travel many different roads.
The opening selection, Carol of the Bells, simulates the percussive strike of the bell. The constant pulse of the bass harmonica provides a raw energy that drives the piece forward. After stating the melody, he breaks into a rock style "wailing harmonica" improvisation that kicks the piece into a new dimension. The melody returns with the "wailing" motif floating above the melody. Never have I heard "Carol of the Bells" like this!
The next piece, Silent Night lies in stark contract to the marcato "Bells". The smooth legato keyboard (also played by Bruce) sets the stage for a very calm and lyric presentation. The heart of the piece is the improvisation which follows the main statement of the melody. The keyboard plays the first four notes of the melody in a loop while the harmonica explores new melodic material. The song fades away as the night disappears. He then goes from one standard holiday hymn to another, but one set in a very non-standard way. Angels We Have Heard on High plays with some interesting drum patterns on what sound like congo drums and tom-toms. The piece ends with a short drum solo.
Avinu Malchenu presents a middle eastern theme with some enchanting rhythms and orchestration. As with Carol of the Bells, Bruce presents the straight melody and then changes the style of his playing during an improvisational section. In both segments, the melody and the improvisation, he maintains the plaintive aspect of the piece. He demonstrates that the harmonica can play the plaintive song.
Away in the Manger takes on a cowboy-western flavor. I had the feeling that I was out on the range as I listened to the song--very layed-back, very relaxing, very well done. The only criticism that I would make is that during the opening keyboard section the attack seemed a bit inconsistent. This inconsistency may be a result of the MIDI processing--the dropping of notes when the sound module's polyphonic limitations have been exceeded. Once the harmonica began, however, I was captivated by the quality of its voice.
Good King Wenceslas gives us a drum/harmonica duet. The drum provides a simple, constant beat while the harmonica shows that the high and mighty Good King can "get down" to the Lowlands . Bruce's style reminds me of John Mayhall of the Blues Breakers. Both Bruce and Mayhall have the ability to mix a percussive punch with melody and make the music pulse with raw energy.
Dreydl Blues presents the harmonica unaccompanied--just a lonesome player harpin' the blues. A dreydl, by the way, is a 4-sided toy marked with Hebrew letters. It is used in a game of change and it's spun like a top. Perhaps our player has lost the game and is "singing" the blues!
I Wonder As I Wander is one of my favorite holiday tunes--a song filled with yearning and desire. Bruce captures the essence of the song with his lush opening section followed by the melody played with a strong portamento style. This same style marks his interpretation of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Both pieces balance a subdued and sensitive accompaniment with the edge of the free-reed.
The Holly and the Ivy give us a get-down, let-it-go, wailing great harmonica solo. As with Good King Wenceslas, Bruce incorporates a percussive style with a melodic improvisation and sets the holly and the ivy free.
In the two classical pieces, Hallelujah Chorus and a brief statement of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies we hear the harmonica in multiple tracks which simulate a harmonica orchestra. As would be expected, the blues and rock style of playing are not present here.
I have often told people that an album is actually the work of two kinds of artists: the musician(s) and the sound engineer(s). Bruce Kurnow proves with this album that he excels in both areas. He can make the harmonica sing the blues, rock around the clock, and contain the classics. He has also demonstrated that he can artfully mix multiple tracks with balance, power, and grace.
If you want to visit an interesting place this holiday season, I suggest that you visit Harmonicaland and spend some time listening to the many voices of Bruce Kurnow.
Peaceful Piano: Solo Improvisations for Relaxation, Meditation, and
2002 / Switchback Productions
The back cover notes for “Peaceful Piano” state: “This solo piano recording
is designed to give the listener 60 minutes of deep relaxation and peace.
Producing this kind of music has the satisfying purpose and hope of
providing relief from stress, insomnia, and pain.” I can fully attest to
fact that this works since I first listened to it in my CD alarm clock, and
the two mornings that it was there, I slept right through it! Most of the
twelve tracks are very spare, but also very evocative in their simple
messages. As with most music of this nature, there is little drama, and the
tracks flow gently from one to the next. The pieces are all quite lovely,
and work well as a graceful backdrop for other activities (dining, reading,
etc.) as well as a means to soothe the mind and to relax. Some of the music
reminds me a bit of Michael Jones’ improvisations. An accomplished musician,
Kurnow is involved is all aspects of the recording industry. In demand as a
studio musician, he has appeared on 125 albums to date, and has 26 solo
albums to his credit. Along with piano and keyboards, Kurnow has recorded
with and composed for several other instruments including harmonica and
harp. Titles on this release include “A Place of Peace,” “Rose Garden
Meditation,” “Sea of Forgiveness,” “A Time to Heal,” and “Peaceful Joy.”
Very quiet, soothing, and serene, “Peaceful Piano” will certainly provide an
hour of calming music if that is what you are seeking.