Twenty year old interview with Brendan Power

In another life I put together a short-lived newsletter on harmonica playing. Around then, harmonica genius Brendan Power was kind enough to let me interview him sitting on the side of the stage at Whelan’s in Dublin. It might be interesting.

IHN I suppose the first question is why did you start playing harmonica?

BP I went to a gig, in 1976 I think, and I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and I was blown away by Sonny Terry’s harmonica style. Went out and bought a harmonica the next day. Got right into blues for about three years or so. A blues fanatic you know, this blues purist. Went out and bought blues albums and Sonny Boy Williamson II, Rice Miller, was someone who really, I loved his sound. Listened to that a lot. So, it was really the blues.

IHN And then you started going into jazz-blues-trad-fusion-psychedelic …

 

BP The guy who really got me, sort of, moving into different directions. I mean, I always played a few trad tunes as well because my grandfather was from Waterford and my dad had a few Irish records, I think as a result of him being Irish of course. As I was growing up, I heard those, Richard Hayward and Seán McGuire. They’re sort of scorned by modern Irish musicians. Those records were in the house. You know Master McGrath, you know that song? I loved all that stuff but there were a few tunes there. After I started playing for a wee while I started trying to pick out a few Irish tunes but the guy who really got me sort of thinking in other directions was Charlie McCoy. I got his first record and I couldn’t believe it, the speed and the clarity and, you know, accuracy. He was still playing blues position but totally different. And so what I did was I had this old record player which had 16 speed on it, you know, so I used to slow his records down and suss out what he did. I really learned a hell of a lot by listening to him and he was, you know, a link into Western Swing, all that sort of stuff.

IHN Right, at what stage did you start using electronics, moving into jazz, because, I mean, your style has so many different things in it?

BP The jazz thing, about sort of ’86 I think, I decided I was going to try to get into the chromatic and that was … I spent about a year, really trying to suss out how I was going to do it and I realised that to try and play in all different keys on a chromatic is a very good thing to do but it’s also very difficult and also in some ways, from a musical point of view, it’s very difficult. If you can play a brilliant blitzing run in say C or G or whatever, but as soon as you get to F# or E or whatever it becomes impossible to get the same flow so I decided “Well, fuck it, I’m just going to buy a whole lot of chromatics in different keys”, cheat like you do on the blues harp. That’s what basically you do, I wouldn’t call myself a master of the chromatic in the same way that say Toots Thielemans is or Larry Adler—not Larry Adler because I don’t like him too much—but there’s Tommy Reilly or whatever but what I believe is that … if you close your eyes and listen to the music, that’s the main thing, how you actually get the notes coming out is not so important, it’s the end result that matters. So basically I just choose a harmonica that suits me.

IHN So that’s the same attitude that makes you retune harps?

BP I do. I retune chromatics. I retune all my blues harps. I do play standard tuning—occasionally—on the blues harp.

IHN So almost everything you play is retuned.

BP It is.

IHN What sort of retunings are you using?

BP It’s very confusing. I get into something for a year or so and then I think, lying in bed one night, “Oh, I wonder, if I did that,” and there’s a terrific process of relearning, almost. Well on the blues harp, I basically try and turn the top octave into a mirror image of the bottom octave. You know the top octave is, you know you can bend all the blow notes up there but they’re not really very compatible with the notes that you can bend down the bottom end. Down the bottom end you can bend the first, the third, the fifth. At the top end you can bend the sixth, the fourth and you can bend the tonic, the first. So what I’ve done is basically retune the top end so you can bend the same third, the fifth, the tonic.

IHN You get the same control, you can play the same runs.

BP You can play the same runs and the same licks with blow bending as you can with suck bending down the bottom end. So you can get that fierce blow bending sound but it’s all using those blues notes.

IHN And that’s the standard Power tuning?

BP Yeah, the only variation is filing up the 5 draw or leaving the 5 draw as it is.

IHN And what would you do with a chromatic?

BP Chromatics, I retune them so that they’re, …, I play them in cross position basically, so instead of playing a C chromatic in C, I play it in G. So what I do on a C chromatic is file up the F to F# just to give yourself that proper G scale. So the 6 draw or the 2 draw or the 10 draw, I file them up a semitone—like country tuning basically.

IHN The other thing I was wondering, I’ve seen a few people say that solo harp is a bit of a forgotten art nowadays, even the traditional things that you might have expected to hear solo. Your own compositions are written for solo harp and don’t suffer from being played solo. Do you deliberately set out to write something that will work solo?

BP Sometimes. I do a couple of tunes, one’s Spaceharp—it uses very long reverb, it’s a very angst-ridden thing. And there’s another one called The Didgeriblues. They’re solo pieces and I always do them solo. Other things I can play … Irish tunes can work well solo. Especially the Irish tunes, they have an internal rhythm to them. As far as my own tunes go, they’re mostly written with a guitar in mind—a band, hopefully, if you can afford it. But if you’re in a situation where you have to play solo, as long as it has a strong melody and a groove to it, a rhythm. You can play most things solo, as long as they go with feeling.

IHN Do you, when you’re composing a tune, do you play it solo?

BP Yes to start with obviously, yes I do. … I think I’m quite strong on melodies. I’m not much good in terms of majors, minors, sevenths. As jazz harmonies go I wouldn’t be able to do an A-major-seventh-flat-five with confidence.

Irish music is mostly played on whistle, flute, whatever. Of course phrases that just flow on those instruments often, not often, can be very difficult on the harmonica. I think the harmonica is great for Irish music, because the harmonica has a lot of soul to it because there are a lot of free-reed instruments in Irish music, accordion, piano accordion, concertina. The problem there is none of them can bend the notes like the harmonica can. The only thing the harmonica can’t do is it’s a bit less dextrous, it can’t do the big octave jumps so basically I try to write tunes in a traditional style for the harmonica that utilize its strengths, you know the gutsiness of it.

IHN You play Irish stuff in second position?

BP No. It might sound like that. There’s one, The Jolly Beggarman which is in second position. It suits it, with the flat seventh. Irish I normally play in first position, they’re mostly in major keys, with third position for minors. There is a retuning I use for Irish music which is to bring the 3 blow up a tone. Once you do that, the bottom octave sounds more gutsy, more bluesy.

IHN The other thing I wanted to ask you about is your vibrato.

BP Part of is the fact that my harps have valves in them, on the draw reeds. So when I blow, all the air goes to the blow reed.

IHN Who should we all be listening to?

BP Howard Levy, I think he’s a knockout. In terms of chromatic I love Stevie Wonder. Toots Thielemans of course, I don’t like everything he does but … Blues harp—Sonny Boy, Junior Wells, Little Walter. And Mick Kinsella here in Dublin.

IHN Finally, where do you hope to go from here?

BP Hopefully, to try and settle down a bit on the tunings. Jazz is really where I want to develop.

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