Spotlight : Jean-Jacques Milteau

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JJMilteau (by Fred Courtois)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.
Benot Felten : In France you're one of the longest standing players...

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 another.

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 the Blues.

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 fun...JJ Milteau et Manu Galvin (by Fred Courtois)

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 rocked !

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.

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Sonny Terry
(Sample 1)

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5 inches
from the mic
(Sample 2)

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Sonny Terry played stuff like...
(Sample 3)

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 really moved.

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 healthy...

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'...

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Old Stuff
(Sample 4)

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 playing...

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 improvements...

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 repetitive...

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...

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Third hole
(Sample 5)

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 !

BF : 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 production.

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 !

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Sonny Terry groove
(Sample 6)

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Sonny Boy II
(Sample 7)

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 ain’t righ' ; sometimes he plays an 11 bar blues... And little by little he acquires a kind of mastery over the groove.

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 !

JJ Milteau (by Fred Courtois)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...

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Chord vibration
(Sample 8)

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 his attention.

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 !

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Early Little Walter
(Sample 9)

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.

I use a standard Shure Bta 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 sae 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 acoustic sound.

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 much.

Bastille Blues.jpg (22961 octets)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...

JJ Milteau (by Fred Courtois)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 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.

JJ Milteau (by Fred Courtois)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 your home.
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 crawl...

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 that.

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 !

Click to Listen

Big Walter's Christine
(Sample 10)

Click to Listen

Brel sung
by JJM
(Sample 11)

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...

Click to Listen

Diatonic according to JJM
(Sample 12)

Click to Listen

Lil' Blues
(Sample 13)

Click to Listen

(Sample 14)

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...

BF : 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 finished.