Bruce "Creeper" Kurnow,
(Switchback, 1999)

First of all, let's get one thing clear: Bruce Kurnow is a harmonica monster. This guy does things with harmonicas that I've never heard done before. When the first number, "Honk If You Love Harmonica," begins, you'll think you not only went to Harmonicaland, but died and went to Harmonica Heaven. And that feeling never quite goes away. You've gone down the Harmonicabezi River and you're not coming back for fifty minutes. This album is all harmonica, all the time, and therein lies the problem, such as it is.

You're surrounded by harmonicas from the get-go, with Kurnow's multitude of mouth harps coming in from all directions, thanks to well defined stereo and the miracle of overdubbing. "Honk" has traces of those taxi horns from "An American In Paris," but has an energy and harmonic feel all its own, with a warm, rhythmic pulse throughout. It's a brilliant little number, and a great start to the album, the only caveat being that there's no build in volume or intensity -- it starts big and stays there. Kurnow changes gears with "Dance of My Ancestors," a Russian-sounding klezmer type of tune, then gets into new age trance music with "Patience," which he calls "a long, gradually developing melody," which is very pretty if a bit dull. Maybe I need more of the title.

"Barn Dance #1" follows, first in a series for the Chordomonica, and no, I don't know what that is, but it certainly works well for a barn dance, and Kurnow uses those rural "boom-chicka-chicka" rhythms to great effect, sneaking in some very sophisticated harmonic twists and turns. There's a shift from back home to the "Chicken Blues" (the chickens are presumably feeling low after being evicted from the barn), and Kurnow's blues chops are so strong that he could easily sit in with any blues band he chooses.

"The Dream Choir" uses "a special effect to create ethereal live harmonies." Like most "ethereal live harmonies," it's lovely to listen to, but doesn't really go anywhere. A return to the traditional lets Kurnow stretch on "Gimme the Worm," which I first thought a tribute to tequila before reading that it's supposed to depict baby birds crying for food. Either way, it shows off his chops, but is similar to the previous piece in that it doesn't have much of a destination either.

"The Exile" has a destination -- it's dedicated to the refugees of Kosovar, and, like a good film score, succeeds in interpreting the sorrow and loss behind that tragedy. It's beautiful and transcendent music. Climbing from "The Canyon," from which Kurnow digs a nice groove, we reach "The Road to Harmonicaland," the most interesting track on the CD. It's filled with catchy melodies and involving harmonies, and sung with many voices, thanks to Kurnow's judicious use of multitracking.

"Baker Beach" uses the sound of ocean waves as accompaniment to a harmonica playing pretty much a single line for 4 1/2 minutes. It's soothing, but ultimately dull. Fortunately we return to "happy" harmonica for the finale, "Barn Dance # 2."

It's damn tough to do a solo album, and Kurnow nearly pulls it off. First of all, he's blessed with a multi-voiced instrument, unlike someone like Sonny Rollins, who still has managed to record stunning solo albums on the tenor sax, a single-voiced horn. The problem is that one of the most interesting things about an instrument like the harmonica is its interplay with other instruments, but you won't find that here. No matter how fiery the playing or how great the performer's skill, there's something missing. Even with the multitracking, it's like the old joke about the tribe who believed that the world stood on the back of a giant turtle, which stood on the back of a larger turtle, so that it was "turtles all the way down." In this case it's harmonicas all the way down.

Don't get me wrong, though -- Kurnow is a fine musician, and a superb harmonica player who shows the wide range of sounds and feelings which the harmonica can provide. He would be at home in any configuration that included a harmonica: jazz, blues, you name it. However, with most people, a little harmonica goes a long way, and I would have much preferred to hear Kurnow in one of those configurations, sharing ideas with other musicians. I also would like to have heard a wider variety of musical ideas than Kurnow's own. A few interpretations of already familiar works in any genre would have been a valuable addition, and allowed us to see what Kurnow would do with other's compositions.

This is definitely an album for those who love the harmonica, and is also recommended for those who are curious as to what an all-harmonica album might be like. But if you're not a harmonica aficionado already, you probably won't become a convert. Still, it's quite a tour de force, a worthy attempt to give the entire stage to an unexpected and often unjustly reviled instrument. I'm sure I'll visit Harmonicaland again, and I'll be interested in seeing what Kurnow comes up with next.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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