Monday, September 23, 2013
6th Annual Chicago Blues Harp Bash Featuring Johnny Sansone
I have retreated from the harmonica community over the past few years due to a spike in family needs and work commitments. I still try to "visit" from time to time. Since devotion to the harmonica is a decidedly peculiar passion, all devotees tend to bond immediately to each other and treat each other with kindness and empathy. It is the friendliest community of musicians I have found - not much ego and few "cutting contests" amongst harmonica players. Of course, it is a somewhat nerdy community, because only nerds spend countless hours studying the output of deceased blues harmonica players.
One of the leaders of this community is a fellow from Joliet IL, Joe Filisko. Joe is a fantastic harmonica player with ferocious curiosity - he wants to know all about the tin sandwich, he seeks out the music of obscure players that died decades ago and he travels the world playing and teaching at festivals. He has probably taught more aspiring harmonica players than anyone on the planet. I am one of his former students, and I am very lucky to have fallen under his tutelage. He is generous with his knowledge and patient when dealing with incompetent harmonica players. He also customizes harmonicas (converting store-bought mass-produced pieces of junk into marvelous, high-end musical instruments). Every serious harmonica player dreams of owning a Filisko harmonica; most never achieve that dream. Filisko harmonicas are not, as Joe says, "for the general public," and he believes that most harmonica players are members of "the general public."
Six years ago, Joe realized that some of his student were serious performers. He launched a harp bash featuring a handful of local Chicago harmonica folks (mostly his students) and one serious professional "ringer." The "ringers" at past bashes have included Billy Boy Arnold, Jim Liban, Jerry Portnoy, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Gary Smith. If these names mean nothing to you, then you are not a blues harmonica aficionado.
This past Sunday evening, the 6th Annual Chicago Blues Harmonica Bash was held at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The featured "ringer" was Johnny Sansone.
Sansone is based in New Orleans although he was born and raised in New Jersey. There are tons of gigs in and around N.O. so Johnny doesn't get to Chicago much these days (he did spend time backing some of the Chicago greats when he was younger - Jimmy Rogers, Robert Junior Lockwood and others). Sansone is part of the tight New Orleans music scene - hangs with Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyril Neville and a host of others. He is featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He is a formidable songwriter, and he plays accordion to boot!
Johnny Sansone closed out the night, playing a mix of originals ("The Lord is Waiting and the Devil Is, Too," "Once It Gets Started") and blues standards ("I'm Just a Bad Boy," "She's Nineteen years Old," "Raining in My Heart"). His harmonica work is technically adept and aggressive. His tonal choice is edgier than the traditional "fat" Chicago blues harp tone. He is closer to Paul DeLay; not quite as close to Big Walter Horton. It is a great, large, passionate sound. The sound matches Johnny's physical presence. On stage, Sansone is like a more menacing version of Baloo from Disney's "The Jungle Book." He commands the stage, and the whole room. This is not a man to trifle with, no sir. He played his ass off, and told some amusing stories, too.
Near the end of his set, Sansone called out Jim Liban, another harp master who was in the audience. Johnny asked him to come up and play; Jim demurred, saying "I left my harps in Milwuakee." Joe Filisko quickly produced a full set of Filisko Customs, and Liban came forward. The combination of Sansone and Liban was a harmonica summit that generated slack-jawed amazement and screaming ecstasy from the harp players in the audience. Liban is a Jedi master of the blues harp, the Yoda of the Mississippi saxophone. All other professional blues harp players are Liban fans. He cranked it so hard that Sansone began to complain, "Liban is kicking my ass!"
The Bash performers prior to Sansone's set did not disappoint. Scott Dirks is a highly skilled harmonicist, author, educator and advocate for the blues harmonica. He brings deep love and respect for the genre (not to mention chops and decades of playing experience). Tall Paul Sabel is a member of the younger generation (under 45 years old) of blues harmonica players, and he is definitely an "up and comer" amongst the harp blowers in Chicago. Grant Kessler and Kirk Manley are long-time Filisko students and local performers that have many gigs under their belts - both have achieved the "big tone harp" sound the Filisko strives to teach his minions.
But the biggest kick came from the opening act, Zoe Savage. Ms. Savage began taking lessons from Joe Filisko when she was 10 years old. She has studied hard, played in the advanced Chicago blues harp classes at the Old Town School and is now a formidable performer - and she is also teaching harmonica classes at OTS. It is unusual to see a woman in her early 20's channeling Little Walter Jacobs, but Ms. Savage can handle the L.W. licks, the tone and the vocals. This is a young blues harp player who might be famous some day. It is very gratifying to old fossils like me to see a young person like Zoe come forward and respect this music.
The band that backed all of the harp players was a trio led by Shoji Naito, an excellent traditional blues guitarist. Shoji is also a skilled harmonica player, so he knew how to support all of the performers that walked the stage last night.
This annual event is always interesting and full of surprises. Let's hope that Joe Filisko and his crew keep it up.