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Bill Barrett

Dennis Gruenling & Jump Time - That's Right

The "West Coast" brand of blues supposedly influenced by jazz is often very stale nowadays and little new has been invented since T-Bone Walker and George Harmonica Smith. Instead of being yet another imitator of Smith's style, Dennis Gruenling has undertaken the task of using George Harmonica Smith's legacy in a context truer to the original inspiration of West Coast Blues : the Jump styles of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima.

"That's Right !" is Dennis' second release in that style and its musical qualities are undeniable. The band is obviously schooled in jazz, not just jazzy blues, as is evident from the rhythm section, keyboards and saxophone. The most interesting aspect of this band from a harmonica enthusiasts' point of view is that the harmonica is not presented as a solo instrument but as part of the horn section. I only know of a few harp players who have tried this successfully (Roscoe Shelley, Mike Peloquin, George Brooks) and yet it can work really well. In classic Jump tradition, this means that the harmonica does get solos, but not significantly more than the tenor sax for example. I imagine that the horn arrangements are written by Dennis himself, and he does a great job of using the amplified harp sound inside the canvas of a jump horn section. It sounds quite natural. Listen to the instrumental "Blues Up and Down" and you'll hear just what I mean.

It has been said in the past that Dennis' playing owed more to tenor sax legends than it did to harp players. I'd say that this is wildly exaggerated ! Dennis's playing is still very much anchored in the blues tradition and his frequent use of tongue blocking effects (especially on the chromatic) certainly distinguish his sound sharply from that of a sax. Furthermore, Dennis' improvisations remain mostly within the boundaries of accepted blues harmonies whereas his saxophone playing bandmates steer away, on the fringe of be-bop at times. That's not to criticise his playing in anyway, especially since Jump was never a style in which harmonically wild improvisation was the main focal point. The blues sound of Dennis' playing makes a nice couterpoint to the tenor saxophone throughout the record.

What does distinguish Dennis' playing from that of other harp players is his endeavour to produce a different and characteristic sound. He uses only low harps (or the low end of chromatic harps) and thus plays a certain role in the band that has never really been played before. His amplified sound is smooth, very much geared towards fitting in with the horns rather than standing out. Nothing flashy, just fits nicely !

If I had one criticism about this album, it's that the vocals aren't always on par with the rest of the band. Gina Fox, the "official" vocalist has a very nice voice, but it owes more to cocktail jazz than it does to Jump. On some tracks, like the ballad "I can't believe you're in love with me", it works well. On other more raucous numbers, it fails to deliver that extra growl that would really fit the genre. I would have liked a little less Diana Krall and a little more Janis Joplin. The album features another vocalist though, John McCuiston, who seems more at ease. He has a kind of drawl in his singing that really works well, and he can growl enough to deliver more convincingly.

All in all though, this is a very good record, another one of those records that won't make your better halves go "is that harmonica again ?" No, it's good Jump, and you can secretly listen and marvel at the fluid harp lines that Dennis Gruenling weaves !


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