[Harp-L] Ideal Trio and dancing women

Hello Folks,

I just signed up to this site and am enjoying the correspondence--messaging back and forth. The topic about starting a three piece band is interesting to me as it deals with something I've thought about for many years. As primarily a diatonic (Marine Band) harp player who has been the leader of a blues band from the late 1960s, and a one-man-band performer since 1983, I've experienced a number of different combinations of players.

At this point in my career, I'm willing to experiment on stage with virtually any combination of instrumentalists--especially with people using non-traditional instruments--for example, marimbas, steel drums, tubas, accordions, hand percussion, horns (sax, trumpet, trombone)--you name it. If the musicans can really play, the gig will happen and people will dance regardless what instruments are used.

There is one instrument, though that I am extremely cautious about adding to a group: electric bass. For one, the bass player, whether he or she is aware of it or not, has almost total dominance over the changes and direction of the music--if you have a mediocre bass player, you'll have a mediocre band. Also, the way electric bass is commonly played (especially by contemporary blues bass players), the sound of it completely fills the bottom half of the sound spectrum and leaves no room (or space) for the harp player to play delicate phrases. Therefore, it's been my experience that I have to overplay the harp and forget about any finese in melody or tone.

The key to playing amplified harp is to have the mic turned up very hot, but be able to play the harp at a whisper. Put into the mix a typical plodding electric bass player who overplays the tonic note of each chord change ad nauseam with little sonic relief between each pluck of the string, the harp player might as well forget about any senstive "inside" playing.

This has been a problem for me when touring abroad with pick-up bands. One time in Germany, I had to fire a bass player during a gig---though his problem was an inability to understand simple blues changes and the hear them within improvisations--he was simply not there with the proper underpinning when the rest of us were changing chords. But, my point, the rest of the band felt we couldn't continue with the show. "Bullshit" I told them--we didn't need a bass player. There were two guitar players and the drummer--we didn't need anyone else--and we didn't! The show went on and we actually sounded better. For one, I was finally able to get a good tone with my harp because the bassist wasn't there mucking up the entire lower half of the sound spectrum.

For anyone inspired by Little Walter, his best recorded cuts came when he didn't have a bass player.

However, what Walter did have was a great jazz drummer--Freddy Below. Walter's best solos are intrically intertwined with Below's drumming. Below was an obvious inspiration for Little Walter. I find the same thing true with drummers I've play with. The worst kind of drummer is the one who doesn't vary the beat and plods along steady ahead with no interaction. I interact contantly with the drummer and if the drummer is just playing a beat with no embellishment, then I tend to be uninspired. It is important that the drummer play light and fast like a be-bop drummer--good technique with brushes, light-handed with cymbols, and great use of the snare and toms really helps.

So, back to the trio--I suggest harp with drums and guitar. However, there has been no mention of piano---it takes a hell of a guitar player to match the range of music that an average keyboard player can put out. I am also on a crusade to get acoustic pianos back into the mix. Acoustic piano with guitar and harp make for a strong line-up.

One more band line-up I recommend, harp with stand-up acoustic bass and either acoustic piano (best) or electric guitar. Playing with the sound of acoustic bass is far superior to that of the electric bass---day and night difference. The acoustic sound doesn't muddy-up the sound spectrum--it gives a space that allows the solo instruments to play with finesse. Also, an acoustic bass can substitute for drums especially if the bassist is good at "slapping" the strings. Anybody who has ever heard Willie Dixon play would know what I'm talking about---drums're not needed, and the dancers dance.

Speaking of dancers--all the tlak about women dancing in the audience--of course! That IS one of the main reasons I got into music to the extent that I did. Scoring the first night I played harp on stage addicted me immediately! Women?!! Bunched in groups in front of the stage, on stage in my lap, dancing with them in the crowd, and on and on.

Things have, indeed, changed. American audiences (where one can find one these days) are now very sedate. If you are looking for an audience of gorgeous dancing women, they generally go to clubs that don't have live music. Also, with a few exceptions, young Americans could care less about any music not immediately contemporary, and it's mainly on the internet; older Americans aren't going out. So, the live music scene is pretty much dead in the water outside of local cover bands playing corner taverns for little or no money. Stict enforcement of liquor and driving laws have done a lot to ruin the club circuit---afterall, it is America and without a car, it is difficult to get around; and the advent of AIDS in the 1990s helped get rid of a lot of those dancing girls at the gigs.

Europe and South America are different: people do go out (not as car dependent); young people will go hear music that isn't the latest flash-in-the-pan; people pay attention and respond; and the respect for musicians is generally much higher. At this point, I don't even seek gigs here in the USA, though I still play the ones that I do enjoy. But, in general, overseas venues are much more appealing and exciting.

Patrick Hazell

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