Dennis Gruenling & Jump Time - That's
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
"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
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 !