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||For this first interview we had the pleasure of
meeting up with Jean-Jacques Milteau, a famous French harp player whose renown
unfortunately has not crossed our frontiers enough. He graciously accepted our visit and
allowed us to do this first multimedia interview : when JJ wanted to illustrate a point of
harp playing or quote a piece, he played it and you can listen to those by clicking on the
little harmonica icons on the side of the text.
||Benoît Felten : In France you're one of the longest
Jean-Jacques Milteau : The ancestor !
BF : If you look back 30 years, when you started playing harp, what
has changed ?
JJM : Everything ! This morning I met an old friend, a banjo player,
and he told me he was deep into computer problems... If we'd ever thought when we started
playing music that computers would once be useful to us... I think everything has changed
radically. When we started we were at the end of a century, now we're at the beginning of
BF : Has the way that people perceive the harp and the music that's
played with it evolved ? You started in the middle of a blues boom...
JJM : It's difficult to be definite... I think the perception depends
essentially in whether we as harp players have interesting enough things to put forward...
That being said, the harmonica will never again be what it was to start with, an
instrument associated with a social class or an age group. It was the first instrument
that kids used to have. And in the case of blues, it was the instrument of a social group
; it was the cheapest sustained note instrument. The ways that the blacks used it socially
is part of the history of an era, and that will never be the same again.
I think that the blues harmonica benefited more from the general image of blues than it
did from blues harp players themselves and the opportunity they had to spread their music.
We have to be realistic : blues harp players are not generally famous people... But blues
as a whole had a good image and the fact that people like Mick Jagger or Brian Jones
played a few notes on the harp put the instrument in a relative spotlight. What happens
now will not depend so much on how good the players are but on how good their production
is and how inventive they are.
BF : You think it'll be down to their image and the way thay market
their music rather than the music itself ?
JJM : In any artistic activity, success is not a measure of what you
say, it's rather how you say it. It's the same with the harmonica : I believe that a harp
album will have to be as strong and convincing as a saxophone album or even a vocal album.
That's what will get the ball rolling. If that's not the case, then the harmonica will
become a forgotten instrument. It's not just true for harp : I'm convinced that as time
goes by more and more instruments will become rare and to an extent obsolete.
BF : In this context, how do you see the impact of say a John Popper
on the popularity of the instrument ?
JJM : Very positive ! In any case, as soon as someone plays well and
is put forward on record or on stage, with good promotion, it makes some people want to
play. There's no doubt about it. It's always extremely beneficial. That's what I mean :
what harp players do with the instrument will determine the evolution of said instrument.
But I think it'll happen more on an image level than through the music itself.
The harmonica is an instrument that makes you dream. I perceive the piano, or the
saxophone as wide ranging introvert instruments : their essential characteristics are
musical. The harmonica's essential characteristic is the imagination, what it evokes
rather than it's musical possibilities. It will never be a saxophone, a violin or a piano.
But it has a sound specificity and a historical specificity. That's that way I feel it and
I think that's the way most people see it.
BF : But in parallel to that, some players are using the instrument in
new directions that would not have been imagined 20 years ago. Howard Levy's arabian jazz
with Rabih abou-Khalil for example... Do you think that these kinds of approaches will
remain getthoed to a few players doing some 'weird' stuff ?
JJM : I think there's more to it than that. A lot of people are
tempted by these approaches. The question is what is to become of that ? Will there be a
market for it ? Will Howard Levy (or another player for that matter) release a title that
will make people say "That's what harmonica is about !" Because at the end of
the day that's the thing : when Stevie plays 'Isn't she Lovely', people think "That's
what the harp is about !". Ditto when Sonny Terry plays 'Lost John', or Sonny Boy
Williamson plays anything : in a way, it's obvious. When Howard Levy plays arabian music,
I'm not sure that people hear it as obvious... For a start most of them don't even know
it's a harmonica (Laughs). Seriously though, I think that despite Howard incredible talent
and musicality, for most listeners, it's just an exentricity...
BF : I see what you mean. People won't automatically associate what
Howard plays with arabian music...
JJM : And they won't associate it with the harmonica either, so it'll
only concern a very marginal part of the audience. And there's no criticism in what I say
: I deeply admire the work of an Olivier Ker-Ourio, a Howard Levy or other innovators, but
it's my answer to your question about the future of the harmonica as an instrument : I
don't think that these are the directions in which it will prosper...
BF : Do you think it'll be through more popular styles of music or
styles that will become popular ?
JJM : Yes. If it is to prosper ! At the same time keep in mind that
the harmonica was the instrument of the industrial era, and we're now in the computer era.
Maybe it's time is done...
BF : Let's get back to you a little... Can you briefly tell us how you
got into playing the harp ?
JJM : Exactly the way I mentioned it : guys likes Brian
Jones with the Stones or Dylan with his rack were playing harmonica here and there. I had
some friends in high school one of whom played guitar and harmonica (rather well actually
!). When you're a teenager, you want to join in on 'tribal' activities so I bought a
harmonica, and of course, it was the wrong one to start with since I bought a tremolo.
Then one day on an album sleeve I saw Dylan's rack down and you could see the mouthpiece
of his Marine Band clearly, so I looked for that. In Europe at the time it was called a
Super Vamper. I bought one, played around with it and wondered how the hell you were
supposed to play it. Finally one day I read an article where Hugues Auffray (French
folk singer-Ed.) said that Dylan's secret was in sucking instead of blowing in order
to get a blues sound. I tried that and started from there.
In the beginning I had this feeling that it was a secondary instrument. Dylan used it
but his main instrument was guitar. I didn't even think that there were harmonica pieces
or that any band could want a harmonica player. For me you played harmonica just like
that, for fun. I still believe that (Laughs). Then, little by little I discovered
First it was Sonny Terry. Very few blues records were available in France in the early
60's. And the only stuff by him you could find were the Library of Congress recordings
that Folkways issued, and a few similar records. Later I found my first Sonny Boy
Williamson 2, the famous 'Real Folk Blues' that will always remain for me one of the
greatest blues albums. It was a compilation of the Chess singles that Vogue had released
at that time, a good compilation. And that's how it all started !
Later I played with friends, with bands, I went on the road around Europe and the US,
all that stuff. When I came back from the army (they caught up with me when I came back
from the US and sent me straight to Germany) I started playing again. Well, continued
playing really, since I played with the batalion orchestra in Germany, and that was quite
BF : You got them to play some blues ?
JJM : Too right ! Then when I came back I started doing recording
sessions, since there were very few guys who played harmonica in that style ; there were
chromatic players, but no diatonic players and no blues. That's roughly when I discovered
Charlie McCoy and Little Walter. I found records while traveling in Europe and these were
two complimentary revelations : on the one hand a guy who swinged his blues real hard,
Little Walter, who really struck a chord within me, with the groove in his playing. On the
other side, McCoy, very precise in his phrasing, both in ballads and in fast pieces ; that
allowed me to work in both directions.
BF : And Butterfield ?
JJM : Of course, I heard him the first time when I went to the US. It
was amplified harp and I only knew acoustic at that time ; it was very rock oriented as
well. His 1965 album was the first blues album that sold above 1 million copies, and it
was very interesting. Later on, the thing that really got me into Butterfield was a double
live LP (that has never been re-released on CD) which featured amongst other things a 10
mn version of 'Everything's gonna be alright' and a great take on 'Born under a bad sign'.
I really loved that record. It featured a very interesting take on blues, strayed away
from I/IV/V, with interesting horn arrangements. There was some funky stuff, it really
That was also the time when the J. Geils Band released 'Whammer Jammer', in the early
70s ; that meant yet more things to ponder and work on. Once you had integrated the
elements of straight blues or country, suddenly here came these guys who played amplified
and with a very specific style. Butterfield's was very lyrical, with a strong and beautiful
vibrato, based on Little Walter, with long drawn notes, a lot of vibration and feeling.
Magic Dick was the opposite : a very dry attack, very percussive and rythmically precise.
All that was very interesting and seriously boosted my playing. It took mea decade to
assimilate all that.
BF : Is that why your early recordings have a very electric sound ?
JJM : Probably. My sound was nervous, even angry... You know what ity
is when you're young ! (Laughs) But in the 70s I'd also seen Norton Buffalo on
stage. He was touring with 'Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen'. These guys were
swinging country and western music, a kind of second degree thing, but man, could they
play ! They were extraordinary musicians : Bobby Black played pedal steel guitar, Andy
Stein was on fiddle and sax, and Norton Buffalo played harp, trombone and sang. They
started their shows with a signature tune that Norton Buffalo had written ('Battle of New
Orleans'). That tune really blew me away. This guy had an energy and a phrasing that
really impressed me. I started looking for his records. He produced some interesting stuff
towards the end of that decade, like 'Lovin' in the Valley of the Moon'. Some of the stuff
was very strange and not necessarily to my taste, but it was all very challenging and new.
This guy had extraordinary ideas though : on the famous chorus he does on 'Runaway' with
Bonnie Raitt he uses four different harps in a very intelligent way... He's one of the
players that meant a lot to me.
In the meantime I started seeing some bluesmen on stage, which I hadn't had the
opportunity to see until then. I saw Sonny Terry in New York and that really shook me.
Seeing Brownie and Sonny get on stage for a start : the cripple leading the blind ! Sonny
Terry's wife was sitting just behind us.
from the mic
Sonny Terry played stuff like...
|At one point Sonny starts singing a blues, and his wife
gets a handkerchief out and starts crying. And you're there thinking 'this is the real
thing', as authentic as it gets. What I'd heard on record wasn't fake ! There was real
living behind that, a real character. And Sonny was a guy who played generously ; he was
practically doing the rythm. Sonny played (Sample 1) and Brownie filled on the guitar.
Sonny was like (Sample 2), 5 inches from the mic. This physically impressive man sang and
played stuff like (Sample 3) with wide gestures, very interesting theatrics. And his wife
breaking down in tears because he was singing a blues that probably related to them ; that
was really something... I don't want to fall into cheap melodrama, but I have to say I was
In the tears chapter, the first time I saw the American Folk Blues
Festival in Paris, the show started backstage with Whispering Smith playing a blues phrase
on the harp. It was in the 'salle Pleyel' (that had nothing bluesy about it) and I was
quite far back. And suddenly I started crying like a child. When I heard these notes I
started crying, I just couldn't control it. I ran at the front to see them play, and I
have rarely felt anything that powerful ever since...
BF : Funny you should say that : when I listen to the AFBF records and
I hear these 'classical' type applause at the end of each song I feel like there's a huge
gap between the performers and the audience...
JJM : It was probably the case... But at the same time you have to
understand that each person's approach to Blues is different...
There's a sort of misunderstanding concerning the position of blues in relation to jazz
and rock. There's this myth that Blues is the 'grand-daddy'. Muddy himself sang that in
'The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock n' Roll' ; I think that was more of way of
riding the wind... The great specificity of jazz has always been to take a fashinoable
style of music and appropriate it. When jazz started, blues was fashionable, so jazz
musicians were inspired by blues but later on it was broadway musicals, latino music, and
then they went back to blues in the 50's during the be-bop era ; Blues itself on the other
hand had a relatively logical continuity up to the 60s-70s After that the musical world
became essentially moved by money. Which means there are no asides.
Before that, blues lived despite the economy. Which doesn't mean that labels like
Bluebird ou Chess weren't about money. But blues continued to exist in spite of the
economy. That's no longer true.
BF : You mean that it survived even if it didn't sell ?
JJM : Yes. People met on saturday night and had a good time ; or a guy
would wander with his guitar and play on street corners. It's not only true with blues but
also flamenco, cuban music, etc. These music lived an essentially social life. Now we live
in an era, a system where music is economically controlled. Which I don't think is
BF : Isn't it difficult to try and remain authentic when you know that
there's necessarily and economic machinery behind you ?
JJM : Authenticity doesn't exist or mean anything in itself... False
authenticity is the drunk guy who plays in bars and crawls on the floor, or the guy in
overalls who walks out of his cotton field and plays. That's romanticism, it's good for
cheap entertainment. True authenticity is in the note the guy plays. When he plays, either
you're moved or you're not, whether he's a truck driver in Memphis or a zipper salesman in
Montauban (city in the south of France - Ed.) The problems lies not in the
credibility of the character who plays but of what he plays.
That dilemna had amusing consequences in the blues field because many people, both
producers and players focused on the looks, or this search for credibility rather than on
the music. And that is maybe the only aspect of blues that rock n' roll has truely
inherited, this showing off aspect...
BF : So in the eternal white blues/black blues debate, you're firmly
on the side of those who say that skin colour is of no relevance. The sincerity of what
one plays is the important thing ?
JJM : To tell you the truth, I'm a purist... To me Blues as such
stopped in the early 70s. At that point the black population started rejecting it and
moved on to soul, which was quite understandible : the black population had in its midst
exceptional musicians, guys who were way beyond I/IV/V : Stevie Wonder, George Benson,
Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, are extraordinary people who had no particular reason to
play 'Travelin' Blues'...
|That completely changed my way of appreciating music. I
listen to very little post 70s blues. I love old stuff like (Sample 4). Deford Bailey,
Sonny Terry... I'm not saying that I could listen to that for hours on end, but it's what
gives me the greatust listening pleasure. Any blues from the start of recordings to the
60s I just love. After that we entered the era of the control of music by the economy.
Things are just not the same...
BF : When you started playing there was
very little available on the harmonica : records, methods, books, articles, etc., you all
had to look for it actively. Did you discover any 'unknown geniuses' ?
JJM : They were then, they aren't now ! I'm always shocked when I surf
on the net and see how precise, how knowledgeable people are on the harmonica today ; at
the time, everything was purely empirical, both about the music and the playing. And I
stayed like that. I'm not very technical, neither in my way of learning nor in my way of
When I hear about harmonica studies, I'm very interested but at the same time I wonder
if it doesn't kill part of the charm... The thing I love about that instrument is that
it's very mysterious. Nobody knows exactly how it works. The guy in front of you listening
doesn't understand how it works. There's this story of the guy who opened Little Walter's
hands to see where 'that' sound came from, or this other guy who wanted to buy James
Cotton's harp for 300 dollars... There's a sort of magic because it happens inside the
mouth, because we inhale the music, because at the end of the day, the player's morphology
is where the sound comes from. When you start analysing all this in minute detail, it's
kind of like pornography...
BF : The difference between eroticism and pornography...
JJM : That's one way of putting it... There's no more poetry, no more
dream, it becomes something extremely technical : this is an overblow, that is a bend...
It's true, of course. I did many masterclasses where students would ask me these
questions. But what I tried to carry over to them, beyond the technical side, is a certain
kind of warmth...
The greatest pleasure in a musician's life surely has to be the first piece he can play
without any mistakes. Beyond that, maybe it's like the first girl you go out with : you
will find immense pleasure in playing later on, but that was the best. Mastering this
mysterious thing. I find that the harmonica today lacks poetry. It probably corresponds to
our era of hypertechnology, people's way of thinking are becoming more and more
specialised, specific, precise...
BF : It's the same with other instruments though. I rempember that
early blues guitarists were paranoid about 'showing' their tricks, tunings, etc.
JJM : But often the guy didn't know what he did ! He discovered
something and that became a way for him to express his feelings. He wasn't specialised
technically. And I think that specialisation kills the music in a way. Nowadays there are
virtuosos on all instruments, but musically, there isn't musch happening...
In the realm of harp playing, if you start with Will Shade and Hammie Nixon move to
Sonny Boy the First, then Sonny Boy the Second and Little Walter, there is some kind of
filiation there amongst harp players who played pure blues (I'm not talking about guys
like Sonny Terry because they were more country, folk blues players.) This filiation goers
towards the better, each player works on their playing in order to enhance the expression.
When you move to Butterfield, all is still fine : expansion happens through horns,
electrification, a rock side, but you can still hear the filiation. From then on you start
wondering if the expression, the artistic quality really benefits from the technical
On the other hand, guys like John Popper have brought in truly superb things. He's got
an energy, something really new and interesting. It's not just technical. I really loved
their first album. I'm just slightly worried that the harmonica will become contaminated
by the virtuoso side of electric guitarists and that people, in the end, will get bored by
that. After one chorus, you're very exhilarated ; after a whole record it becomes very
We were discussing this with Greg (Szlapczynski, another French harp player - Ed.)
the other day in the car while listening to Joshua Redman on the radio. And I asked him
"do you really think we'll ever do anything better than that ?" Even if
you're the best harp player in the world, you'll never get close to Coltrane or Charlie
Parker with a harp... Never ! You'll make yourself happy, because you'll be able to play
this or that lick, but that's not enough. And if you start inventing stuff around that,
saying "I borrowed these ideas from this or that guy and now I play around them and
do something different with them", then the interesting thing becomes your artistic
creation, not the source or the fact you play it with harp !
To get back to the start of this conversation, the harmonica is no different from other
means of expression like painting, guitar, poetry or whatever : either you express a
genuine emotion in your work and people will be interested in what you do, or you don't,
however good you are technically...
BF : Doesn't it get harder and harder to be original though ?
JJM : I'm not so sure... I think that today's music lacks a serious
artistic reflexion. We play things in a very conventional way and let ourselves be
impressed by the technical aspect of a phrase. It's very tempting to approach things
technically, but sometimes it is done in spite of any reflexion on 'why' you do things...
|What are the main characteristics of a diatonic harp, for
example. On a diatonic, essentially you have three holes that really sound good. It's
mainly hole 3 as in (Sample 5) No doubt about that. Once you've done that you know nearly
all you need to know about the diatonic. It's better to think that the diatonic has
specificities and that you play on these specificities. Overblows are also part of it of
course, but only if they serve the expression, in the way that Howard Levy uses them. If
the overblow is only a way of obtaining notes, I think a chromatic sounds better !
: But maybe people will push the technical aspect far enough that they will find
what sounds good in overblows as well ...
JJM : I sincerely hope so for the sake of our favourite instrument.
Another important aspect is production. Not how 'rich' the production is but how
relevant it is. I'm talking mainly about recorded music here, on stage it's a different
thing again. When you record a CD it's a little bit like a movie, except that the listener
will listen to it more than once. You must carry inside his headphones or living room
something that will making him dream, that will bring him to the shores where you express
yourself. That is the key. You tell me that this record here (Clint Hoover - Dream of
the Serpent Dog - Ed.) brought you somewhere. It's not virtuose or technical, but it
has a certain atmosphere, a climate, and you like that climate. The guy takes you by your
hand into his world. I'd say the production here has been succesful. Amongst
instrumentalists, and especially top level instrumentalists, those who research the
instrument technically, there is often a lack of production, a lack of reflexion on the
BF :: Speaking of technique... I have this feeling when I listen to
your older records that there's a flash side to your playing, speed and all that that has
disappeared or at least been attenuated in your current releases. Is it deliberate, or did
it just happen like that, a feeling of play that has evolved ?
JJM : I don't need it so much... Before, I expressed myself with many
notes because I needed to fill the space. Maybe I didn't play as well ; it's a fact that I
didn't play as well actually (Laughs) Now I can let myself play only one note,
make it sound, and leave silence behind it, it doesn't bother me. I have the feeling of
being there and filling space nonetheless.
There are many reasons to that. Age of course : as you get older, you acquire a
serenity, whether it's justified or not. And your sounds gets better with time. Experience
means that you need less effort, less air to have a good sound. It hasn't been that long
since I started liking my sound actually. Before that, I hated it... I listened to myself
and it was horrible... And the last thing of course is that you learn to express yourself
more soberly, it's that simple ! That being said, in my new album there will be some
'nervous' stuff too !
Sonny Terry groove
Sonny Boy II
|You see the main thing to me has always been the notion of
'groove'. To me that is the essential thing for any musician and it's much more difficult
to acquire for a harp player because he plays very little rythm ; he has less of an
understanding of rigorous rythm in arrangements and rarely thinks therefore about the way
things need to be arranged. When Sonny Terry plays (Sample 6), he has a certain
groove ; that's the first thing that I loved about the harmonica... that extraordinary
version of Lost John that he recorded for the Library of Congress in 52 . Sonny Boy's
timing also... (Sample 7). He just knows how to let the music breathe... The
regularity of his vibrato to the tempo...
In the same vein there's Little Walter's
ultimate sense of timing. When he started he had a lot of trouble with timing. You can
hear him messing up in Jukeor in other pieces like 'It aint righ' ; sometimes he
plays an 11 bar blues... And little by little he acquires a kind of mastery over the
I've had the chance of being on stage with drummer Steve Gadd when he played a drum
chorus. I realised an amazing thing : this guy takes posession of time. The people who
listen to him suddenly live by his rythm. And when I say rythm it's not just tempo, he can
shorten or elongate time. He becomes the master of time. I realised then that great
musicians were masters of time qhen they played, placing themselves in relation to tempo,
dynamics, etc. Once you get into 60s jazz (I'm a huge fan of Miles Davis, Chet Baker,
Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, all these guys...) you realis that they have a way of grappling
time and dominating it's that nothing short of amazing.
That being said, I still work in a very empirical way... I honestly think that the
harmonica is an instrument for slackers. And I was one when I started. I was the king of
wankers when I was a kid and the harp fit me to a T. I have never been able to work in a
systematic way. I always found scales and theory extrepmely boring, I never could do it...
I think the harp is a tourist's instrument...
BF : You have a deathwish man !
JJM : No, it has to be said ! That's where the
charm of the instrument comes from ! It's the charm of the guy with a broken face ! Some
people tell me "you know, we have to make it into a noble instrument, it's not just a
kid's toy" and I say yes because I don't want to heart their feelings, but the truth
is I think the opposite !
The great chance that this instrument has is that it is a pirate's instrument, it's
unexpected. It's the instrument of someone who can't afford a 'real' instrument, who is
always carrying it when other don't have anything on them. you can get on stage with your
hands in your pocket, whip it out, play four notes and the audience goes "wow !"
That's what the harmonica is to me, this kind of surprise element. Which makes all the
more complex when you have to keep an audience interested and on its toes after a one and
a half hour gig !
The most interesting aspect of the harp is it's spontaneous and day to day side. You
have it always on you, and when you want to play something you take it out and play. If
you don't want to you leave it in a drawer and after a few days, you feel like you're
lacking something and you think "I haven't played for five days". Then you pick
it up and that's the greatest pleasures of all !
BF : Ok, but you have dabbled with special tunings, weird stuff...
|JJM : Of course I have : after a while you
start looking for stuff or you go crazy (Laughs...) That's why I perfectly
understand the people who do all those researches on the harp. Of course I've retuned
reeds, put valves on my harps, etc. But today, what I like is this stark naked side of the
instrument. A stock marine band, that's the thing... Ok, so if reed sticks you fix it of
course, but the essence of the thing is it's in your pocket, you take it out and play
(Sample 8). Feeling that chord vibration inside your mouth is just so good... I know
it sounds disappointing, but that's what I think...
BF : Which answers
another question I had : you use stock harps. You've never tried ti customise your
instruments, never wanted to play a Filisko or other ?
JJM : If I get the chance one day, why not, but if I have one tyhen
I'll have to buy eight or ten... Why ? If I'm not good on stage, I won't be any better
with a Filisko...
BF : No, of course, but the response of the instrument can make the
playing easier, more fluid, don't you think ?
JJM : Of course ! I choose the best set up harps in those I get. But
the magic of the instrument comes from its normality as well. The magic of blues is that
the guys had beat up guitars ! They didn't play on $5 000 guitars, but their sound is the
sound of the Blues. Their harp sound is the sound of the Marine Bands they bought for one
dollar at Sears & Robuck. Of course that doesn't stop you from looking for better
instruments or different things, but you have to keep it in perspective...
Now if you're asked to play a specific thing you can wonder whether to use this or that
harp, this or that tuning, etc. Because in that case there is a reflexion, a
premeditation, unlike the spontaneity I mentioned earlier. If I'm playing a gig under my
own name, I'll make sure my harps are all in working order, but beyond thatn it's all
spontaneous, because that's the way I am, I don't like to prepare gigs too much. That's
the way I like it !
BF : How about amplification ?
JJM : There are very interesting things about amplification. I used
effects a lot when I was backing singers (Bill Deraime, Chris Lancry...) Ever since I came
to the front of the stage, things are different. I noticed an interesting phenomenon : the
less intermediaries between you and the public the better. If the guy sees you take a harp
out and when you play the sound is even more the 'real' harp sound than what he imagined,
if he has this feeling that you're sitting on his lap, that's the best way of capturing
That doesn't mean that an amplified sound can't work... But I do believe that amplified
harp is cursed in some way. Or rather doubly misunderstood. One thing is that harp players
have always had trouble hearing themselves. Another is that they always wanted to play
guitar (Laughs) After all what Little Walter did was what Hendrix did a few years
later : use the defects of amplificatuib to obtain a particular sound.
Seriously though, when you enjoy eight or twelve bars of saturated harp on a record
with a very crunchy sound that stands out, it's different from sustaining an entire gig
with someone on stage playing harp sounding like a chainsaw. In that case people have
trouble remaining interested because you need to wrap them into your music... The beer
drinking male population might stay but you can be pretty sure that the female population
won't follow you. And when the female population doesn't follow you're missing out a half
of the blues. And the good half at that !
Early Little Walter
|Amplified harp was justified by the unreliability and the
price of PAs. As soon as a band had an electric guitar, or even worse, a drummer, the harp
player couldn't hear himself. So a lot of guys played amplified : Sonny Boy I &
II, Snooky Pryor. That was 'basic' amplification. The guy who really changed something was
Little Walter. Because he created a means of expression based on amplification. To start
with it was an accident, and then he though "Wait a minute, with the sound I have
here I can do stuff that I can't do acoustically..." Early on he played in a very
traditional style, heavily inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson I, things like (Sample 9) Then
he starts exploring amplified harp playing with Muddy Waters, there's 'Juke' with the echo
chamber and all these things that later became characteristic of his sound. For a few
years he played amplified, but more importantly he played with a great expression, which
isn't by far the case of all amplified players.
||The essential quality of the harmonica in a band, its major
pro is its dynamic range, the fact that it can be played very hard or very low... The
audience has to feel the player's breath, even more than with a sax. On harp, you can
breathe and 'not play'... People listening to you are right inside your mouth when you do
that. Little Walter learned how to use amplification with great dynamics, great nuances.
You can't always play full blast. The harp can't compete in that register... It holds its
own for 8, 12, 24 bars, but then it loses its essential characteristics, which is a shame.
use a standard Shure Bêta 58 with a 'Thierry Cardon' volume pot, and I put the gain very
high on the PA. There's a specific note on an A, 3 draw that needs to go red on the
monitor when I pull it a little hard ; that's the minimum. It doesn't saturate : sound
engineers are always very scared as soon as it goes red and they lower the gain ; big
mistake ! You need a lot of gain : that's how the texture of the harp sound gets carried
through the electronic.
Of course you need a good soundcheck, because the more gain you have the more likely
you are to catch some feedback. But at the saùe time that's how you get through the
characterictic sound of the harp. The listener needs to be able to hear the faintest
breath. Your job is to control what you send even when you play very low...
BF : I always had this feeling when listening to old recordings, when
you hear the guys throat through the harp microphone...
JJM : Exactly ! The thing that I love in these old recordings is that
the guy got in the studio in his overalls, sat in front of the mic and played. And the
sound was there ! Makes you wonder : do we really need 50 000 watts ? The sound doesn't
come from the amplification, it comes from you, that's quite clear ! I jammed with Magic
Dick and cats like that, and believe me their acoustic sound is the same ! The timbre
changes a little, but most of the sound comes from the inside !
The thing that can be nice with amplification is the fact that when you attack a note a
little harder you hear the preamp react, same as with a guitar. In reality it's quite
difficult to obtain, to control and use properly ; that's why you hear some horrible
oversaturated things sometimes. Plus one has to admit that the louder they play the least
saturation they need... The thing I'd love would be to have the possibility of a 'crunchy'
sound ; to have a warm acoustic sound and to be able to get a more saturated sound when
you attack harder, a little like when you play several notes at a time. I tried a few
pieces of equipment but nothing that I liked.
In fact, ever since I started playing direct into the PA, I love it... When you lead
your own band, you usually have a good quality of sound. You can ask things that you have
trouble obtaining when you're a sideman. The ideal thing would be not only to hear
yourself well but to be able to play with the hands as well. To have an invisible
microphone ! Playing with a mic inside your hands, that could give a crunchy sound when
you want it and playing with your hands into a mic hanging some, in order ot have an
BF : You never tried sax pick-up mics ?
JJM : I did but they often lack bass, at least those I heard.
BF : I use one and although it isn't completely satisfactory it's
interesting. I always thought that if someone worked on such a mic specifically for harp
it could work...
JJM : The problem remains of where you put it. There is a certain
theatric aspect to playing : remember what I said about Sonny Terry. If you spend the
whole evening crouched on your harp, people get bored. You have to give them something.
There are gestures coming into it that aren't necessarily efficient soundwise. I also try
to play as much acoustic as I can with the mic in hand. The mic ball is like so : with air
all around it.
BF : Not a closed chamber...
JJM : No. That's what I like in the Marine Band sound ; it has a
certain brightness to it. I like the fact that you can hear the breath also. The thing is
like defects. That's why I like this instrument, because it's full of defects. Perfect
things bore me. I don't know if I'm right or wrong, but that's the way I am . And I think
that the breath, the parasitic breath, is very touching.
BF : Can you tell us something about the new album ?
JJM : Yes, of course... Earlier on you asked whether it was hard to
keep some authenticity in relation to the business of making music. The answer is yes ; I
struggle to slide myself past that thing, which means I won't have a weight on my head
regarding the record that I want to do. I will concede one or two points in order to do
what I want on some other aspect. But one of the main rules is to do what I want to do.
Else it sounds empty. You have to get some outside help though, because it's difficult to
have a wider view of your own stuff. You have to have others work on certain things,
remold them, view them in a different light. Someone who can overlook in a positive way.
Most importantly someone who is not a harp player, who knows nothing about the harp, an
outisde ear. Because as a harp player you have a tendancy of playing too little or too
The title I chose for the next album is "Bastille
Blues". Real life stuff ! A little parisian boy who discovers the blues and ends up
adopting it, with some influences, specofoc but strong. There will be blues and boogie,
styles that I have frequented in the past but treated with the sound I have today, the
angle I use today. The context in which the harp is is also important, the harmonica sound
musn't be eaten up by the instrumentation. I work mainly with the same musicians as usual,
people who understand me without a word being spoken. The harp has to be in a similar
position as the singer who is supported by a rythm section.
BF : Uplifted by the accompaniment...
JJM : Yes. You have to be very present, because the guy who buys a
harp record wants to listen to some harp ; you have to be careful not to overload with
other instruments and keep some from of cohesiveness from the first track to the last .
It's probably one of my last albums as albums though. The album concept won't last much
longer I think. With active downloading we will move back to doing tracks or series of
tracks rather than albums. The formp of creation will move back to what it was before...
BF : Towards the single, the 78 ?
JJM : Yes. But talking about albums or concerts is more or less the
same to me. From the beginning 'til the end your audience has to be captivated, like if it
was in front of a movie ; some things have to happen, you need certain moods, certain
links between the scenes... The music has to be in constant motion. The audience is
actually giving you a part of their time. You are responsible for it, whether the guy is
sitting in front of you or in his living room. It's a monolog and at the same time a
conversation. I try to see it more or less as a play.
It's much easier to do on stage than it is on an album. Up to now we always had this
ridiculous idea that one of the tracks would be programmed on radio. It's completely
stupid since no radio in France apart from possibly FIP would program an instrumental. Air
time is way too precious ! Now I know it will never happen, I can do what I want, and I'll
try my best.
BF : We'll tell you in a few months !
During the international touring you do, Madagascar, Singapore, China, do you share things
with local musicians, in particular in their musical styles ?
JJM : Of course. I listen. I'm a big listener. Thank god I'm not
frustrated from playing, so I don't need to go and jam with these guys. I'd much rather
listen to what they do than participate, at least at first. I'm also fairly shy, and I
think it's more polite to them.
The problem in these tours is that it all moves so fast. You play and the next day
you're gone. There are opportunities to meet people, but not always as much time as you'd
like. China really impressed me. In most of the world, there's a European imprint : in
America (North and South), even in Africa because of colonisation, you have something in
common with the people : even if the culture is their own, there are links.
In Asia, and particularly in China, there is no common culture, or if there is it's
recent and based on money. In China they have 6000 years of history plus 50 years of
communism ; they speak Chinese, full stop... They don't need English : there's a billion
of them ! The context is totally different.
I took a few lessons of Chinese before I went there, in order to be able to speak on
stage a little, but mostly to try and grasp their way of thinking. I had a chat with a
French scholar who is a specialist of Chinese culture and this guy told me that when he
was studying over there he had played a tape of Beethoven's 6th to some Chinese students
and that the people wouldn't understand. They remained totally hermetic to that...
For us the 6th doesn't require understanding so much as feeling, and their answer was
systematically "I don't understand"... I was going to go there and started
wondering : "If I start playing and they don't understand, it's a catastrophy...'
There isn't much to understand to start with...
In the end the same thing happened there as everywhere else :
people's reaction is the same the world over. When you play such or such a piece,
reactions are very similar whatever the cultural origin of the audience. People hear the
blues in a similar fashion everywhere. I don't play only blues, because I'm too much of a
purist to do that. I'd be ashamed of playing some Sonny Boy Williamson or it'd have to be
something humorous, a nod in his direction. But of course my playing is tainted with
blues. Even if I play a musette waltz, I use 'clues' bending, etc. I play what I learned,
a bit like Robert Johnson would play non blues pieces like 'Hot Tamales'... And people
react to that in the same way...
BF : What about direct inspiration into your music like you did with
Manu on Yaoussa or Soweto ?
JJM : It would be harder with Chinese music ! I do have ideas for a
'Chinese blues' in a future recording. After all, the harp is traveler's instrument ! And
I love to travel, to see new things. Some times you end up in places that make you feel
like you're on the moon ! When you move from one country to another, one continent to the
next, but sometimes even in your own country, you're going to play in a totally different
context. That's why it's striking that people would react in similar ways...
BF : Isn't that the difference between the 6th playing on a tape and
someone actually sitting down in front of the piano and playing it ?
JJM : Maybe...
BF : I have this feeling that with the era of records and CDs we have
lost something on the side of live music.
JJM : You know, live music now, when you go and see it in a stadium is
little more than a recording anyway...
BF : I agree. I also think that a music like blues has trouble getting
accross to the audience in a stadium. There's a lot of stuff that has been washed down
since the origins but that tops it all.
JJM : Yet it's quite pleasant to go against that. I played a lot in
clubs, in bands, I accompanied many singers. But my first experience as an artist, with my
name on the poster, was in a huge hall where thousands of people were seated. It was the
support act for Michel Jonasz (French pop-soul singer - Ed.)
BF : That's where I saw you for the first time !
JJM : I found myself propelled into that thing because we'd put a
label together with Jean-Yves D'Angelo (Milteau's producer and famous French keyboard
player - Ed.) and we had a record, Explorer, that had won a "Victoire de la
Musique" (French Grammy's - Ed.). Jean Yves used to play with Jonasz. And he
told me it would be nice to play as his support act, and he managed to convince the
producer and Michel Jonasz. So one evening I found myself behind the curtain of the Zenith
: stage width 50 yards. I knew that the audience of 6 200 was here to see Jonasz, and that
they had payed $35 for a seat. I knew I would take them some time, and I thought they were
going to kick me out.
While preparing myself I remembered this sentence by Bedos (French comedian - Ed.),
saying that the less known you are, the less time you have to grab the public. And I was
as unknown as one gets ! So I knew I had to surprise them enough that they leave me a
little more time to seduce them. I started by playing a train imitation on the harp.
Nobody knew that apart from those few who'd heard Sonny Terry. And it worked ! They let me
enough time to introduce the show, to ask my friend Kajdan (French blues guitarist -
Ed.) on stage and to play a little blues that people 'recognised' : Blues is world
music after all, from Sumatra à Vancouver. That way not only did they not throw us out,
but they called us back on stage every night, which is pretty rare for a support act. I
think it was important to keep in mind the fact that the audience could kick us out at
anytime. We were stark naked really... All the guitarists I have done these shows with
were very nervous. I played with Basile Leroux (French guitarist - Ed.) as a
supprt act to Eddy (French pop singer) at the Olympia. He had never found himself alon
behind the curtain, And this guy who never ever makes mistakes did a few that night...
BF : The thing I liked in these shows was your very down to earth
approach combined with the humour. I think it's an important thing on stage.
JJM : I just tried to be myself. We're back to
credibility here : you have to be yourself on stage, and maybe a little bit more because
you're projecting that towards the audience. You can't be too introvert because the guy in
row 10 just won't understand. It's maybe one of the problems that many artsist who are
very sensitive people have. They carry emotions through their music but their demeanor,
the choice of songs, the way the evening goes doesn't allow people to enter their world.
It's a tragic thing really. When someone comes to your gig or buys your record, it's a
privilmege for you. You have to respect him and make him understand that you like him. You
have to share something with him. He must have this impression that he's coming inside
In the end the audience side of it is much more fascinating than the technological side...
Technique has become so focused that I really wonder what more can be added. When people
ask me about technical stuff I answer two or three questions. But really I do it without
thinking. Technique is a tool, like a screwdriver. You have to have something to screw.
It's useful only if you have something to express.
BF : Of course. But to get back to that Internet thing, you only see
the technical side on the Internet, because the guy's expression can't carry through
words... But you have to have at least some technical skill to express yourself...
JJM : You know, at the same time I admire very much the musical
qualities of people and their relentless quest to go forward, but at the same time it
scares me... The thing I really love with blues is the simple stuff, the acoustic things,
folk blues. Take Sonny Boy. God knows there are brilliant guitar parts in his records, but
this sound he got !
To me, if there was a list of one hundred top creators of the XXth century, I think
Sonny Boy II should be in there. There is a strength, a power of feeling in all that he
has done. Take 'Trust my babe' ; it's very difficult to find something as gripping, apart
from maybe Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas"...
BF : You mean from the emotional side ?
JJM : I mean from the side of this emotion that makes your skin
BF : ... and your hair rise !
JJM : When I think that Kim Wilson dared to cover it ! (laughs).
He plays it very well, that's not the point, but I'd be ashamed to cover something like
BF : Just like someone who'd cover 'Ne me quitte pas'
JJM :: Yes. Or you do a reggae arrangement, why not. But to cover it
as is... It's so weird. In fact, even if you do it better, it won't be as good. That would
be like someone saying "I will repaint Mona Lisa". It's just not possible.
BF : Isn't that a general problem of blues today, the eternal covering
of old themes ?
JJM : Let's be cruel, let's push the argument to its limit, the reason
is simple : blues today has no reason, no meaning. And that's why we love it. Because it
becomes secondary. It meant something because the guys only knew how to play three chords,
because they had no money to buy decent instruments or go to a music academy. And first
and foremost blues was sung. The bluesmen and women expressed things through their
singing. Now our duty as blues fans is to work on that tradition and use these bases to do
something that remains moving. But we have to admit that it can never express the same
thing : what do the problems of a mississipi farmer mean today ? What I learned from this
music, the joy it brought to me, the pleasure, the emotion, I strive to transcend that and
use these elements to evoque timeless feelings.
Because the blues has great lessons for us ; sound, this big sound, this
power of evocation that John Lee Hooker has when he mumbles, with this voice that
Musselwhite describes as making you chair tremble when you're sitting next to him !
Big Walter's Christine
|This quality of sound that Walter Horton has in 'Christine'
for example on the AFBF 65 (Sample 10), now that kind of thing is really
impressive. A lesson of sound.
A lesson of groove. A lesson of economy. This capacity to
set a mood that is not tied to a great knowledge of music. Blues links us back to tribal
education, oral tradition, these things that come naturally from the frequentation of
people. We have a lot to learn from that. We have deformed this by making it technical and
even technological. We have decided that in order to do better we had to do more. In fact
the genius lies in doing less. The thing that makes blues so extraordinary is that they
had so little. With two notes they carry you to the Delta. We were mentioning Brel
earlier. It's the same thing : (Sample 11) Just that and people start weeping...
BF : And so does he...
JJM : But that's what the blues us. Close to nothing : a few words of
our everyday language... But it has this power to conjure, this power to project an
extraordinary image... The problems that you can have as an instrumentalist are linked to
a technological viewof the instrument, of the music, because we have methods, videos,
Internet, and all that is missing the point : the dream... To think that you are going to
say this or that to people, one way or the other...
When I do a masterclasse, the first thing I ask people after I've heard them playing is
: "Are you sure you make yourself understood ?" Some of them look at me with a
question mark on their face. But that's the real question : When you play, do people
understand what you're saying through your music ? Not in the sense of a big message, but
do they understand your quest for a big sound, for groove, the fact that you're trying to
express this or that... Do people feel that ?
It's all down to a question of expression. If you stay in the realm of tehnique, I'm a
dwarf. You'd better ask somebody else about that, about overblows, bends, etc. Even I will
learn a lot of stuff there, and that'll make me happy actually. But artistic expression is
not in information.
That would be just like saying that if someone knows how to shoot with a camera and
edit film, they know how to do a movie... It's not the case... You need a story and you
need to know how to tell it ! The harp is the same : it's not what you play... It's not
even how you play it... It's just so very difficult to explain in words...
Diatonic according to JJM
|What I like in the harp is the full sound of a G harp for
example. (Sample 12) I like that. There are only two chords and I have the
feeling of being wrapped into something... Maybe that sounds like a caricature, so let's
say that this (Sample 13) is diatonic for me. There are two chords, you use two
chords. Some people will bring out wonderful melodies that touch me very deeply, but
instinctively, if I play the harp, this is what I'm gonna play (Sample 14). If
you don't use these chords you'd better have a rythm section backing you or have a lot of
imagination... And there are guys like that : Stevie will pick up a harp and play with no
accompaniment whatsoever, and you'll hear the chords. He doesn't play them, but you hear
them subconsciouly. That's fantastic... and frustrating to me ! There are other things
that frustrate me like such and such a groove that I just can't pin down... Irish for
example... It comes in time but you need a lot of patience and work...
Well, thanks very much for your time then !
JJM : You know I could talk like this for hours...
BF : I'll be back in a few months, in that case !
This interview was done on February 18th 1999 in Paris. The photos were taken by Fred Courtois on April 14th during a
Jean-Jacques Milteau concert at the Utopia Club in Paris. All photographs are © Fred Courtois.
I would like to thank Laurent Vigouroux for his precious help in
transcribing the interview. Without him this daunting task would probably never have been