Put aside any notions of the harmonica not being a legitimate jazz instrument. Put aside any notion that a genuine jazz organ trio must have a horn that’s a sax or trumpet. And, put aside any idea that a harmonica only belongs in the hands of blues players. Recalling the mastery of jazz harmonica great Toots Thielemans, enter modern-day master, German-born, now residing in NYC, Hendrik Muerkens. The 62-year-old Muerkens is also a skilled vibraphonist who taught himself to play the harmonica in the style of Thielemans. As such, his style, mostly on a chromatic harmonica, is flowing and melodic, which some have equated to that of saxophonists like Charlie Parker or Eric Dolphy. In modern-day terms think Ben Flocks. Muerkens is in the prime of a 40-year career that has stretched from Brazilian music to straight-ahead jazz. On this aptly titled Cobb’s Pocket, named for the distinctive ‘time field” of legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and countless other iconic jazz recordings.
In his 30 years as a recording artist this is Muerkens first-ever, and the first of its kind perhaps, showcasing the swinging soul-jazz, hard bop, straight-ahead possibilities of pairing a harmonica with and an organ trio (B3 Hammond, electric guitar, and drums). Organist Mike LeDonne and guitarist Peter Bernstein join Cobb in the trio backing Muerkens who says in Scott Yanow’s liner notes, “I’m surprised that the combination of B# Hammond organ, guitar and harmonica has rarely happened before. The harmonica fits perfectly into the classic organ-group and they are all bluesy instruments. He proves that it works well here.
This is the third time Muerkens has teamed with the 90-year old Cobb – New York Nights (1999) and Harmonicus Rex (2016). Muerkens says, “I always think that as long as Jimmy Cobb is around, it would be a crime not to call him!” To add just a bit more explanation to the title for those not attuned to the musical term ‘pocket’, it refers to keeping a steady groove, and if a drummer has ‘pocket’, then the rest of the band can solo with confidence knowing their man is not going to drop the beat or lose the momentum. For the better part of seven decades now, Jimmy Cobb has proven reliable in that way. LeDonne and Bernstein have often played with Muerkens as well. The session came together quickly as Muerkens had a brief amount of time before returning to teach vibraphone at Berklee. He reached out to these trusted musicians to execute his vision and the recording was done in two days.
<P>These are tunes Muerkens has long wanted to record, a mix of soul-jazz, hard bop, and standards chosen specifically to fit the organ trio format. They begin with the easy swinging “Driftin’,” a seldom covered tune from Herbie Hancock’s 1962 debut, Takin’ Off. Next, the title track, an original, of course features Cobb’s percussive thrust and impeccable timing as each of the other three solo at breakneck tempos. Cobb has some exchanges with Muerkens on the eights toward the end. The slow, simmering, oft-covered organ trio tune written by Slide Hampton follows, “Frame for the Blues.” Tempo picks up again with the renowned Muerkens original “Slidin’.” As you listen, you’ll find Muerkens harmonica fits perfectly in the spot where you’d expect a horn but don’t expect to hear the usual cliché’s you hear from the “Mississippi saxophone” in blues and country harmonica players. As stated previously, his flows melodically with a gorgeous tone rarely heard on the instrument. Yet there’s plenty of blues here too. Listen to the Slide Hampton tune for deeply bluesy solos from all of them.
Muerkens lived and performed in Rio in the ‘80s, and he has a long history playing bossa nova. This is reflected in his discography on Concord Jazz in the ‘90s and Zoho Music from the late 200s to the early 2010s. He pays homage to this side of his repertoire with a sultry strutting take on Henry Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind.” They render Sam Jones’ “Unit 7,” bridging back to when Cobb first recorded it with Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly in 1965. Here the dialogue between the B3 and harmonica is interrupted by short drum solo from Cobb, demonstrating that age is no barrier to touch. The requisite standard is Jimmy Van Heusen’s ballad “Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ and the closer is one that Muerkens penned specifically for this project, “A Slow Song,” another one with gentle touches and fine nuances.
So the next time you’re in the mood to hear Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jack McDuff or any other renowned artist in the organ trio setting, substitute this one or put it in alongside them . It has all those same great grooves and feel. You may even like the drummer a bit more.