Anyone who follows Hendrik Meurkens on social media is familiar with the New York-based, German-born multi-instrumentalist’s sense of humor, which tends to lean in the direction of tongue-in-cheek. So it’s no big surprise that the three-octave chromatic harmonica player and two-mallet vibraphonist, who calls his label Height Advantage (a joking reference to its owner’s imposing physical stature), would insert a few bars of Deep Purple’s hard-rock anthem “Smoke on the Water” into the intro and ends of choruses on Jobim’s bossa standard “Wave.”
That track—undoubtedly part of Meurkens’ repertoire at least as far back as his extended post-Berklee period in Brazil, during which he soaked up that country’s music, culture, and language—is one of 11 appealingly intimate duo recordings with pianist Bill Cunliffe on Cabin in the Sky. Throughout, Meurkens applies his warm, resonant harmonica tone to standards and other tunes, starting with the title track, begun with a lilting reading of the melody and concluded with an in-synch back-and-forth between the two musicians.
There are other well-played familiar gems here, including Wayne Shorter’s “Miyako,” Joe Zawinul’s buoyant, zig-zagging “Young and Fine,” and the standards “Invitation” and “Speak Low.” The two offer originals, too: Meurkens’ lush ballads “Afternoon” and “Prague in March,” and Cunliffe’s bluesy “You Don’t Know” and laidback “Time to Say Goodbye.”
Meurkens places his sound, certainly one of the most influential voices on chromatic harmonica since Stevie Wonder and the late Toots Thielemans, in a slightly more expansive context on Music from the Heart, his second collaboration with NYC pianist Roger Davidson, following their 2016 live album. The pair are joined by the Brazilian-born journeyman drummer Adriano Santos and bassist Eduardo Belo to take on a set of Davidson’s Brazilian-rooted originals.
With its piano/vibes textures sometimes hinting at the MJQ, the quartet turns in a variety of rhythmic grooves, starting with the perky samba of “My Love Is Only You,” featuring another virtuosic harmonic solo from Meurkens and named for the pianist’s wife, Nilcelia—like her husband, she’s an ordained interfaith minister. In a similar vein is “Samba de Alegria” (Samba of Joy), showcasing Santos’ Carnaval-referencing drum solos. They also deliver a pair of bossas, the mellow “Comment Je T’aime” (How Much I Love You) and “I Will Always Love You,” an unaccompanied piano solo created spontaneously in the studio; the swirling chorinho “O Mico,” meant to evoke the frolicking monkeys of the song’s title and featuring a rubbery solo turn from Belo; and “Um Amor, Um Abraço” (One Love, One Embrace), halfway between tango and bossa nova.
Most impressive, though, allowing for full displays of Meurkens’ affecting harmonica tone, are several ballads, including “Celia” and “A Primavera” (To Spring), on both of which he’s accompanied only by piano, and “Unconditional Love.” The album’s title is apropos—all feels joyful and heartfelt.Originally Published