The first thing every critic says about Hendrik Meurkens is that he's the world's second best jazz harmonica player (referring to Toots Thielemans as number one, of course). That's not the point. The comparison is especially irrelevant when it comes to Amazon River, the latest of Meurkens' twelve recordings as leader. Meurkens has mixed classic jazz and Brazilian material for years, but this remarkable song set is his first all-Brazilian affair. Critics and listeners around the world agree that Amazon River is a magnificent success.
A German citizen of Dutch decent, Meurkens moved to Boston to study at Berklee School of Music, after which he fulfilled a lifelong dream by moving to Brazil and immersing himself in music. He has since lived in Berlin and New York City, setting a new standard for jet-setting jazzmen. Meurkens' primary instruments--harmonica and vibraphone--are as unusual as his origins.
Amazon River is also the name of Meurkens official Brazilian jazz band featuring pianist Helio Alves, bassist Nilson Matta, and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca. What might have started as a quartet recording evolved into a lush soundscape, thanks in great part to guest producer, guitarist, vocalist, and arranger Oscar Castro-Neves. Other guest musicians include Robson Cerqueira on bandolim (a Brazilian mandolin), deep tenor vocalist Dori Caymmi, and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera. Check out Meurkens' own website for more info on each player and their prestigious side-projects, as well as upcoming performances. Meurkens could not have found better supporting voices, but his is the dominant voice throughout. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Meurkens opens the disc with his own "Mountain Drive", a hooky melody accompanied by lively electric bass, prodigious piano and of course, an irresistibly danceable Brazilian beat. "Amazon River", "O Cantador", and "Meu Canário Vizinho Azul" are memorable vocal ballads accompanied by sweeping string arrangements. Hendrik's upbeat Chorinho compositions "Menina Na Janela", "Lingua de Mosquito", and "The Peach" not only mesh believably with revered Brazilian standards but stand out as possible classics-to-be. Tied with Meurkens for quantity of songwriting credits is Jobim himself: "Passarim" (expressive to the point of sensual), "Ela É Carioca" (funky and fun, featuring Meurkens on vibraphone), "Sem Você" (a bossa nova displaying Castro-Neves' exquisite guitar and vocal work), and "Piano Na Manqueira" (a samba, but also the most bop-ish example on record, piano indeed!)
Though jazz was officially born along the Mississippi river, the Amazon River is home to equally unique indigenous music. Meurkens project shows reverence for the bossa nova, samba, and Choro standards. Interestingly, within the context of Latin music, Meurkens’ harmonica is easily mistaken for a tango bandoneon, ala Piazzolla. These danceable songs are filled with ubiquitous Brazilian percussion: triangle, rain stick, and assorted hand percussion.
Firmly rooted in Latin and European musical conceptions, Amazon River is a welcome alternative to well-worn American jazz and blues forms. This is not to say it is entirely different. Gil Evans and Miles Davis proved the similarities between the "deep song" of flamenco and the cry of the blues. Stan Getz found unexpected success in translating Bossa Nova for American jazz fans. However, only a select few jazz musicians have managed to please picky listeners in both Americas. Hendrik Meurkens, it would seem, is among them. From start to finish, Amazon River is easy to appreciate and hard to turn off. It is highly recommended for fans of Brazilian music and jazz fans everywhere.
In rare fashion, Meurkens put it all on the line when he wrote, "Amazon River is the ultimate statement about me and my music. It presents the whole picture, from Brazilian influenced Jazz to more traditional music. I feel it’s my best work, with so much variation included within it. My goal was to make the most beautiful album possible and I know that we did." A statement like that would be shameless self-promotion if it weren't so true.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.