June 17, 2024

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Interview with Big Harp George: Love and life will always triumph over injustice and hardship: Video, new CD cover

Interview with Blues singer, songwriter and chromatic harmonica player Big Harp George. An interview by email in writing. An interesting personality in Blues, energetic and cheerful, multi-genre musician. He looks like an interesting interlocutor, a pleasant interlocutor, we will definitely meet in the near future. Enjoy his interview and video, buy the CD and listen for sure.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music.  How exactly did your adventure take off? 

Big Harp George: – In my early years we lived in the Midwestern U.S., but when I was 7 we moved to California, and other than my years studying on the East Coast or abroad, I have mostly lived in California ever since.

My entire family was music-loving. My father was passionate about classical music and loved the violin; my mother was more open in her tastes and knew and loved jazz, which was the pop music of her day. When the family traveled by car, we would amuse ourselves by singing, led by my parents. I took to singing from the time I was a toddler.

Like many others, I was swept up by the phenomenon of The Beatles. The first album I ever bought was “Meet the Beatles” in maybe 1963. It wasn’t long before some friends of mine and I performed in a school talent show lip-synching Beatles songs (I was the only one with genuine long hair, the others wore wigs!). And soon after that we formed an actual band in which I was the singer, covering Beatles, Stones, and other pop tunes of the day. I styled myself after Mick Jagger, with a lot of flamboyant clothing and general swagger. Hey, I was a kid!

By the time I was 13 or 14, I’d picked up harmonica. In those days, with Dylan, the Beatles, Stones, and others, harp was a common instrument in pop music. But my brother Bill brought home Paul Butterfield’s “East-West” and that’s what really opened my eyes – or ears, as the case may be – to what good harp playing could be. From there I took a deep dive back into the original greats of, especially, the Chicago harp tradition, whose names are so well known I don’t need to list them.

In my university days I joined a couple of bands. My playing was still pretty raw, but I learned a lot playing with musicians who were much more experienced and better than me. I had to grow a lot in a hurry, but the hours of practice didn’t feel like a burden – it was a thrill to feel my skills building.

I seriously considered going professional when I was about 25. But by that time, I’d developed academic and other interests that took priority. I became a lawyer, practicing as a criminal defense attorney for some years, then became a law professor. I married and had a family. Music was always part of my life but was on the back burner for many years.

It wasn’t until 2001 or so that my old friend and bandmate Otis Grand came to town to record an album with Joe Louis Walker called “Guitar Brothers.” They were one song short of an album, so they called me in to record a harp tune. Afterward Otis took me aside and said: “Hey, you’re playing professional level stuff. Get yourself a little band together, you never know what you can do until you try.”

It took another ten years or so for me to act on that advice, but eventually I did.

The US/EU Jazz & Blues Association (US/EU JBA): Who we are 2012 – 2023! Photo

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

BHG: – The main change in my harp playing has been the switch from almost all diatonic to almost all chromatic. My transformation started about 20 years ago, as a consequence of hearing the fabulous music of Paul deLay. I refer to Paul as the “Little Walter of the chromatic.” It’s fair to say that Little Walter was the greatest diatonic player of all time, and it’s equally fair to say that Paul was the greatest blues chromatic player of all time (always remembering that there are incredible chromatic players in a whole host of other genres, from jazz to tango to classical).

Until that time, I would characterize my own playing as derivative. I wasn’t doing anything on diatonic that hadn’t been done before by others, and probably better than I was doing it. But as I developed my skills on the chromatic, I started to hear my own unique musical voice emerging. It was fresh and different to my ear, but I wasn’t certain in the beginning how the blues world would respond. There are many blues fans who prefer traditional approaches, especially when it comes to harp. So it was a big deal for me when some blues heavyweights, like Little Charlie Baty and Curtis Salgado, heard what I was doing and encouraged me to keep rolling with the chromatic. Charlie, of course, eventually joined me for my first four albums.

The thing that Paul was doing on chromatic that was so different, and that I followed, was not always playing in third position (which is what almost all other blues chromatic players use exclusively). Paul recorded songs in first, second and third, and some would say twelfth position (Paul died in 2007 so some of this is hard to verify). Like on diatonic, different positions have different feels, so by switching positions you can introduce variety into the music. This is essential for me – if all I did was play third position, listeners would get bored quickly.

I’ve gradually moved away from thinking and playing in terms of positions. For my current album, “Cut My Spirit Loose,” all the chromatic songs I played on a C chromatic, regardless of song key. This, of course, is what chromatic players in genres other than blues do all the time, but it is pretty unusual in the blues world to take this approach. Of course there’s still a lot in my playing that comes out of the diatonic tradition, and I think it’s allowed me to carve out a kind of hybrid approach that’s unique. I don’t think I sound like anyone else out there.

The other big shift came when I started to dig into songwriting. My first album, Chromaticism, had six covers and six originals. Since then all my albums have consisted of originals, with the exception of one song on the current album, the Beatles’ song “She’s a Woman” (I had to pay homage, after all!).

I’ve really grown to enjoy songwriting. It gives me another way to express my own perspectives and experiences and share them with the world in a way that’s fun for me and hopefully also for my listeners. I like to say that my songs are written to make people laugh, dance, and think at the same time.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

BHG: – I try to sing every day, especially leading up to a recording date. The voice is like any other part of your anatomy. If you don’t exercise it properly and regularly, you can hurt yourself, just like you can tear an Achilles tendon by playing football with your kids after not exercising for years (by the way, I exercise the rest of my body too on a daily basis!).

I’m also working on improving my reading skills. I’ve come a long way in the music world without them, but being able to read has proven to be very helpful in specific circumstances. We just recorded an instrumental written by my friend and bandmate Michael Peloquin. While I am often playing lead voice in arrangements with my horns, Michael had me playing a lot of harmonies while he played lead on soprano sax. Having the notes in front of me really helped keep me on track during the recording, because I had earlier learned the main melody, and that’s where muscle memory would have taken me if I hadn’t had the written part.

At the same time I’m also working on music theory and how to integrate it naturally into my playing. One of the songs, “Sunrise Stroll,” from the current album, has an augmented chord in it, with a sharp fifth. When Michael pointed this out to me, I arpeggiated the chord (played the notes of the chord as single notes in order), and it sounded much better than what I’d played over that chord before. I’m aiming to be able to recognize those opportunities without the guidance of better musicians like Michael.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

BHG: – As a musician I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing as an individual artist and as a bandleader. I’ve been very fortunate that critics, audiences, and other listeners have responded positively to my music. Their responses have given me the courage to keep growing and developing. My songwriting has gotten more complex, both in terms of lyrical content, instrumentation, and musical form. All my band members are more experienced and better musicians than me, so it took a while to earn their trust and respect. Now I think I have it, and we all work pretty seamlessly as a team, and really enjoy the process almost as much as the results.

One other significant change has come about due to the time I have spent in Brazil over the last 10-15 years. My visits there were mainly for academic business, but I’ve also been exposed to the amazing world of Brazilian music. Starting with my second album, “Wash My Horse in Champagne,” I started mixing Brazilian influences into some of my songs. That tune references the history of Manaus in northern Brazil, which was the richest city in the world in the late 19th century due to the rubber trade – so much so that one of the rubber barons is said to have washed his horses in champagne! While some of these Brazilian-style tunes have little connection to blues, the band and I love doing them, just to liven and mix things up a bit. After all, our focus is on making good music, in whatever genre a song happens to fit.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

BHG: – That’s a really good question! As I’ve already said, I sing every day leading into a session, both vocal exercises and the songs we’ll be recording. I also play my tail off, trying to sketch out what I’ll do on each song on harp.

What I’ve found, pretty much with every session, is that I get into a creative fever. It takes me a while to build the momentum, and frankly, when I do, it’s not always comfortable! I often don’t sleep well. Songs and musical ideas are raging through my brain. More than once I’ve woken up with almost fully developed songs in mind, and I sit down and write them out as soon as I get up. It’s very exciting and productive, but kind of brutal on the body. It also sometimes takes me weeks to wind down; some of my best songs have been written either during or just after we finish a session. With all we put into songs these days – horns, backing vocals, percussion, etc. – we usually have to wait until the next session to record them. But it’s sure nice to finish an album’s worth of songs and not have the tank empty!

One adaptation I’ve made for my last two albums, and I’ll stick with this going forward, is to break up the album sessions into two or even three segments. “Living in the City” and “Cut My Spirit Loose” were both recorded in two three-day sets of sessions, followed by one further day weeks later to polish and add elements to the songs. This is much better than the marathon week we took each time to record the first three albums.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2023: Big Harp George – Cut My Spirit Loose, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

BHG: – I love the diversity of the songs. I’ve been listening to blues for better than 50 years, so my ears crave variety. Believe me, I still love and regularly listen to the blues greats of our past, but we cannot push the blues forward unless we sing and play to our current circumstances. I try to play music that I, myself, would like to hear, and I think we succeeded pretty well at that with this album.

One other thing: I really dug in and tried to improve my harp playing for this album, and I think the songs reflect my effort. With that I still have a long way to go to match the technical prowess of chromatic players in other genres. The cool thing is that even at my current level I’ve been able to lay down some nice harp work, even on my first album. I even see on social media that harp players are starting to try to play some of my solos and to cover some of my harp tunes. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

Over the last several years, we’ve slowly been accumulating a set of Christmas originals. It was never my plan to release a Christmas album, but the song ideas kept coming, we would record a few alongside each of the album sessions we were doing. By the end of May we’ll have recorded 10 Christmas songs that we plan to release as an album later this year. It will be unlike any out there – not sentimental, but instead humorous and socially relevant – and, in my humble opinion, very strong musically.

Meanwhile we have also completed six more songs toward a regular album for 2024. Also by May we intend to record another six and be done with the music for that release.

After that we’ll have to see. I want to do another round of woodshedding after May like I did before “Cut My Spirit Loose.” I want to keep pushing my harp skills forward, because there’s still a lot to learn and a lot of room for growth.

Buy from here – New CD 2023

Big Harp George - Cut My Spirit Loose

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

BHG: – By now my musical team for recording is pretty well set. Chris Burns (keys and producer) has been with me from my first album, as has Kid Andersen (sound engineer and guitar among other instruments) and Michael Peloquin (saxes). Mike Rinta (trombone, tuba) joined us for the second album and has been playing a bigger and bigger role over time. June Core and Derrick D’Mar Martin have been at the drum kit, and Derrick has been adding percussion. And for the two past albums, plus the two we’re working on now, the Sons of the Soul Revivers (James, Walter, and Dwayne Morgan) have become an integral part of our sound.

These are all really fine musicians, the best at their craft in this area at least, if not nationally or internationally. They’re also great people. We get along, we have fun together, and there is a special, near familial relationship that develops when you team together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Believe me, I count my blessings to have them in my band.

As you likely know, we lost Little Charlie Baty in March of 2020. We had just completed the sessions for “Living in the City,” in which Charlie played brilliantly, and I’m quite sure, for the last time in studio. There’s no replacing Charlie, and we all still miss him sorely.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

BHG: – I’ll just tell you about something that happens pretty regularly at Greaseland, Kid Andersen’s studio in San Jose, where I’ve always recorded.

Kid is, in addition to being a great musician, is super bright – and a big-time joker! We are always laughing in the studio. Kid has this hilarious habit, when we reach the end of a song, of starting into some piece of another song that he’s been reminded of by what we played. And of course the song library in his brain is voluminous.

Recently we recorded a new tune I wrote called “Awkward Me” that’s in a minor key and kind of dark but humorous. As soon as we ended it Kid broke in, strumming along and singing “You are … so awkward … to me” (to the melody of “You are so beautiful.” We were all rolling on the floor with laughter.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

BHG: – To me the balance differs from genre to genre and also from artist to artist. Mozart and Howlin’ Wolf were very different, but both were incredible musicians.

As that example suggests, though, blues is a genre that depends greatly on soul or feeling, and less on the intellect. The two can be in conflict, but clearly the optimum is to have them both work together.

I would say Kid Andersen is one of those people who has both, and successfully melds them together in his own music and in his guidance to the rest of us who are lucky to work with him.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

BHG: – You’re right, the relationship is certainly two-way, and it is every musician’s ambition to deliver audiences some feeling, something that moves them emotionally, whether this is what the audience longs for or what the musician longs for them to feel.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

BHG: – I don’t think the age of music as such is an issue. What counts is exposure, on the one hand, and relevance, on the other. People can’t appreciate music they never hear, and will not appreciate music that does not speak to their experience.

In a way what I’m offering to people is “new wine in old bottles:” in other words, classic forms of music with contemporary lyrical content.

In terms of getting younger people to appreciate instrumental jazz, it can also help to think about an incremental approach. One of my paths (not the only one) into jazz was through jazz fusion, especially in the seventies. It had enough familiar musical elements from rock and funk to draw me in. Gradually it developed my understanding, taste and appreciation for more pure jazz.

I’m not sure what genres today would serve as the best entry points to jazz, but what I’m suggesting is that a purist approach may not be the most successful. Helping new listeners along by meeting them where they are and moving them along may be the way to go. Vocal music is more relatable and accessible to most listeners. Have them listen to Gregory Porter’s version of The Work Song! That will get them fired up, and start preparing their ears for some of the incredible musicianship that happens in jazz.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

BHG: – We are all endowed with the capacities to create great love and beauty and great hatred and horror. My objective in life is to leave this world with more of the former and less of the latter.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

BHG: – That hard-working musicians be paid fairly for their talents. That does not happen now, and it’s – to use a blues phrase – “a cryin’ shame.”

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

BHG: – I’ve been listening to a lot of the new blues releases, like the Cash Box Kings, Mikey Junior, Joe Louis Walker, and others, just to keep current with what people are putting out there.

I’m also very taken with the music of two wonderful Brazilian artists, Vitor Ramil and Ana Carolina. I recently listened through Vitor’s entire catalogue, and plan to do the same with Ana Carolina. Great songs, fabulous musicianship, intriguing instrumentation (especially percussion) – it’s all there.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

BHG: – If we’re talking about the music world alone, I’d want to go back to Chicago in the early fifties and hear Little Walter play live. I was fortunate to hear many of the greats of that era later in their lives, but Walter died young, when I was just a kid. But for a harp player, who wouldn’t want to hear The King!

But outside of music, I wish I could go back to Palestine in the 1920s or 1930s, to meet my grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat. He was a legendary figure, certainly in our family lore, but also within wider Palestinian society. When I visited Jerusalem myself for the first time in 1977, and for years afterward, I would meet people who had known Hanna and they shared many stories about his grace and generosity . Although I never met him – he died in Amman, Jordan when I was an infant – he has always been a sort of model or ideal for me. He lost most of his fortune when Israel was created in 1948, his home in Jerusalem expropriated, in what Palestinians call the Nakba or Catastrophe. It’s always felt like a hole in my heart that I never had the chance to know him personally.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

BHG: – Love and life will always triumph over injustice and hardship.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

BHG: – Love the questions. Now, I would like to know more about the blues/jazz scene where you are. What do people like? Are there any up-and-coming local musicians I should know about? How is the club scene? Are there venues that feature our kind of music? And anything else along those lines you care to share. Thanks!

JBN: – Yes, of course, Please see here:

Our US/EU Jazz-Blues Association Festivals 2023 with performances by international stars: Photos

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

BHG: – I have not only given free concerts, on occasion I have paid the band more than I have earned myself, in effect, paying to play! That’s not a situation I like, but my musicians are great artists and people and I insist on paying fairly for every gig. If I could pay them ten times what they typically earn, I would!

My expectations are simple: this is an opportunity for me to share a few sides of myself with your readers that they might not get elsewhere and that hopefully will help them understand me and my music a little better. Thanks for the chance to open up on these topics – it’s been a pleasure!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Big Harp George

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