Various Artists

Harmonica Masters

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Continuing the label's exploration deep into the early vernacular music of the United States, Yazoo Records devotes this compilation to some of the finest harmonica players of the 1920s and 1930s. Harmonica Masters features performances by harp greats like DeFord Bailey, Noah Lewis, Jed Davenport, Jaybird Coleman, and 19 others. The smallest and therefore most portable of instruments, the harmonica took a place not unlike that of the violin in blues and jug band combos. As the musicians here demonstrate, it can also be a fine solo instrument. In the hands of an expert, the harmonic and melodic musical elements mesh so perfectly, it can sound as if they are occurring at the same time. In fact, they are being swapped at such a pace that the absence of neither is very noticeable at any given time. Alfred Lewis' fine playing is overshadowed only by his otherworldly falsetto on "Mississippi Swamp Moan." It takes on such a bizarre quality that it sounds more like an instrument than a voice and is matched beautifully with responsive harp lines. At the opposite extreme, "Touch Me Light Mama" is a wonderfully raw blues piece featuring George "Bullet" Williams' earthy baritone. Whatever Williams and his accompanist lack in technique, they make up for in the visceral quality of their unguarded performance. Gwen Foster's "Wilks County Blues" is an astonishing, vibrato-laden showcase of the musician's harmonica powers, reaching the upper registers of the instrument. On "Chickasaw Special," Noah Lewis expertly imitates the sounds of a train -- an example of a performance style probably introduced by Williams McCoy. From novelty to dance music to deep blues, from accompanist to soloist, Harmonica Masters demonstrates the fascinating tonal and musical possibilities of this underacknowledged instrument.

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