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Hendrik Meurkens: harmonicus rex

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Hendrik Meurkens has long doubled successfully on vibraphone and the chromatic harmonica. Now, more than 25 years into his recording career as a leader, he stands as arguably the most fluid and fluent jazz harmonica player this side of the great Toots Thielemans, whose playing inspired Meurkens to teach himself harmonica.

For harmonicus rex, the German-born Meurkens, a longtime New Yorker, focuses exclusively on his “other” instrument, sort of the lead “horn” in a frontline that variously includes first-call NYC trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and Anders Bostrom on alto flute. They play together only once, on Milt Jackson’s “SKJ,” a swinging blues with three-part harmony, and leave us wanting to hear more of their combination of tones and textures.

Pianist Dado Moroni and drummer Jimmy Cobb are joined by double bassist Marco Panascia in the rhythm section on these 11 tracks, including five penned by the leader. “Mundell’s Mood,” originally heard on Mundell’s Moods, Meurken’s 2000 collaboration with revered guitarist Mundell Lowe, has the harmonica player and trumpeter joining in unison and harmony on the head, and later trading eights. “Slidin'” opens up for Bostrom’s flute, mellow-toned but invigorating. Meurkens also offers the gorgeous, way-laidback ballad “Afternoon,” the breezy, bossa-powered “A Summer in San Francisco” and “Mean Dog Blues.”

The originals mostly alternate with standards well fitted to this group. Brubeck’s elegant “In Your Own Sweet Way” opens with a unison bass/piano groove, while “Falling in Love With Love” conveys a suitably romantic mood, and Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” is a buoyant showcase for harmonica and trumpet soloing. The program closes with two more gentle ballads, “Darn That Dream” and “What’s New.” It all makes a convincing argument for Meurkens’ status as jazz-harmonica royalty.

Originally Published