CD Review: Holidays in Harmonicaland
Bruce Kurnow Web Site
total time: 48:55
review date: October 2005
Harmonetta and Keyboards
All songs arranged by Bruce Kurnow
Recorded, Mixed, and Mastered by Bruce Kurnow
Review by: Robert Stead
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.
Bruce Kurnow, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota and now a resident of Petaluma, California, is enjoying a long career in the music business. At age three he began piano lessons and was immediately hooked. As a teenager he discovered a special connection with the harmonica and has remained dedicated to exploring the possibilities of the instrument. He went on to become a music major at the University of Minnesota, primarily a classical school. He studied piano, stringed harp, voice, theory and composition, which have proven to be a solid foundation for his subsequent work, including twenty recordings of original compositions and eight others of nonoriginal music. Bruce has been recognized with four Minnesota Music Awards for his harmonica, stringed harp and keyboard work. Since 1971 he has been an active studio musician, playing on hundreds of commercials, albums and film scores.
As a performer, Bruce played piano with harmonica master Mojo Buford, who named him "Creeper." In 1971 he went to Los Angeles on vacation and was surprised by the sudden opportunity to tour the United States and Canada with popular country-rock group Mason Proffit, playing 300 cities per year and recording with the group from 1971-1974 (the group reunited in 2003). During that time he was also fortunate to have been invited to perform with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, two of his all-time favorite heroes. When Mason Proffit disbanded Bruce decided to move back to Minneapolis. He co-founded Passage with guitarist Bobby Schnitzer, his long-time friend and band-mate since junior high school. The group disbanded in 1979 and was followed up by the Doug Maynard Band, based around the original vocalist of Passage. This group leaned more heavily toward traditional blues and R&B and released a vinyl LP titled The Lullaby. In a recent Minneapolis Star and Tribune poll, both groups were honored as two of the seven greatest live Minnesota rock acts of the '70s. Bruce left the Doug Maynard Band in 1980 to pursue a solo career, performing his unique simultaneous combination of stringed harp and harmonica. He was approached after a performance by the co-owner of a small record label, The Musical Experience, and was signed to his first recording contract. The result was an LP titled Mystery, featuring mostly original compositions for harp and harmonica.
It was not until 1988, when Bruce signed with Journey Records, that he began a long string of recordings of original music: First Light, Dream Sounds, Quiet Movements, Eagle's Call and Trail of the Wolf. Soon after, Bruce's work came to the attention of Greg Linder, a former music critic for the Twin Cities Reader who became Chief Editor for NorthWord Press, a Wisconsin-based company specializing in nature books and recordings of music and nature sounds. Bruce signed a deal and recorded four records on their label, NorthSound: Earth Rhythms, Mystic Waters, Sky Passage, Nature's Noel, plus the rerelease of First Light and a compilation titled Seasons on the Wind. These were Bruce's most successful recordings, with combined sales of 650,000 copies. For Lifescapes (Target Stores) he recorded Christmas Harp, Harp/Christmas Instrumental, Relaxing Harp and Peaceful Harp.For Ross Records he recorded another Christmas Harp collection and Celtic Echoes. In 1994 Bruce and his wife, Karole, formed an independent record label, Switchback Studios, and have released nine recordings: Forest Reflections, Mountain Mysteries, Lake Impressions, The Nature oflove, Harmonicaland (his first recording to exclusively feature the harmonica--nominated for solo instrumental album of the year by Just Plain Folks in 2004), Pachelbel's Christmas, Peaceful Piano, Here and Now (original blues and folk featuring vocals, piano and harmonica) and Holidays in Harmonicaland.
Switchback Studios, Inc.
423 D Street
Petaluma, CA 94952
Fax: (707) 7666496