Though it may not have the flashiness of a guitar or the thundering power of a drum kit, there’s something incredibly special about the harmonica, which has been a staple of a large school of styles since the late 1800s, from dirty blues and rootsy Americana to post-war swing and jazz and classic rock ‘n’ roll.
HARMONICA HOEDOWN 2017
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln
“It’s almost like a magic trick,” says PT Gazell, the special guest of this year’s Harmonica Hoedown coming to Martyr’s on February 28. “To get that much music out of that tiny of an instrument … and without seeing what the player is doing [to achieve it]. That’s always been intriguing.” The Nashville master player was first drawn to the harmonica through the blues circuit, growing up outside Milwaukee where he would sneak into clubs to regularly see acts like James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite and Taj Mahal.
After relocating to Lexington, Kentucky and eventually Tennessee, Gazell became a master session player, staying quite prolific over the past few decades. As well as recording alongside jazz and bluegrass greats like Bela Fleck and Ricky Skaggs, he also developed his own sought-after Gazell Method of playing (with two instrument models distributed through Seydel), which expands its scale by adding in extra valves in order to further bend the notes to achieve a sound quality that he describes as “emotional and voice-like.”
“[Gazell] has revolutionized the ways of playing,” says Bob Kessler, the organizer and host of the Hoedown, as well as one of its participants. The Crystal Lake native plays in a local trio with James Conway and Graham Nelson and is a former collaborator of jazz pianist/radio personality Ramsey Lewis and singer-songwriter Dave Alvin. Kessler also hosts a podcast for enthusiasts called “Harmonicast,” which is where he first linked up with Gazell last year and offered an invite to this year’s sixth edition of the festival.
The Harmonica Hoedown was originally founded in 2012 (initially held at the Hideout) as a quasi 40th birthday party for Kessler, but it has since morphed into a celebration of the instrument. “This event is really about the community that shares that same obsession,” says Kessler who sees the fan base growing. While it’s been a constant across music genres and still synonymous with legendary acts like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Chicago blues greats, the harmonica is also part of the repertoire of young blood artists like Ryan Adams and Beck.
Gazell has also been pleased by the exposure. Back in 1988, he took a 15-year reprieve from the music industry and started work in sound design and audio postproduction for film and television, having grown frustrated by what he calls the limitations of the harmonica. But upon his return to the scene in 2003, which was inspired after working on a project about Nashville’s famous bluegrass venue Station Inn and trying to refute online posts from fans posturing that he had died, Gazell says, “One of the things that absolutely floored me when I played again was how much the instrument had grown up, and with more advanced techniques.”
Part of that credit is owed to the innovative work and teachings of Howard Levy that has evolved the harmonica’s range. The experimentation has led to the inclusion of harmonica in more diverse world music styles, Gazell says, like reggae, Arabic and Indian music. “There really are no limits anymore.”
Kessler promises that the Harmonica Hoedown will be a large showcase of the instrument’s versatility. While Gazell will be focusing on jazz standards, swing classics and American songbook selections, Kessler’s trio will offer sounds “you might not commonly hear” with unique interpretations of The Police as well as Herbie Hancock. The lineup is rounded out by Chicagoan Joe Filisko — a popular teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music and once named “Harmonica Player of the Year” by the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica — who will offer more classic blues numbers.
Ever the fan, Gazell is looking forward to that spectacle. “It will be pretty interesting to see the same, small instrument played in so many ways.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.