[Harp-L] Joe Filisko and Ron Sorin

   Joe Filisko's classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music continue
to be a valuable resource for harmonica players.  I'll use myself as an
example.  A month or so back I emailed fellow list member Tom Albanese and
asked if he knew whatever happened to Chicago harpist Ron Sorin.  I used to
cross paths with Ron in the 70's, 80's, and 90's.  Simply put, he was one of
the best and busiest blues harpists in the city during that period.  There
were quite a few fine blues harpists in Chicago back then; but to my
ears, Ron Sorin had elevated himself above most of them.  A thoughtful
and articulate guy, I enjoyed listening to his observations about the
instrument almost as much as I enjoyed hearing him actually playing.
    Anyway, Tom had also lost track of Ron.  But a few days after my inquiry
to him, I received my usual weekly email update from Joe Filisko's Old Town
classes.  I'll be darned if Ron Sorin's name wasn't listed in their calendar
for an appearance on June 22.  I went last Monday and it was a terrific
      I'm not sure Ron Sorin expected all the fuss.  He's a very introverted
person who has always been content to be a sideman.  Doesn't sing or record
under his own name.  Remarkably, someone took the time to collect 14 of
his best solos on other people's records, put them together on a bootleg CD
and burned a few dozen copies.  They were for sale at the class for 10 bucks
and went quickly.  All money going to Ron.
   Ron probably played nearly an hour of blues harmonica, soloing over a
variety of grooves provided by an ace blues band playing at a
nice, quiet level.  He never ran out of ideas and I got the impression that
he could have gone on indefinitely.  Which was remarkable because Ron
had been off the scene for a long while, supporting a family.  His first
position work was especially outstanding to me.  At times I had trouble
distinguishing it from his cross harp, it flowed that naturally at every
tempo.  Moreover, there was nothing "sweet" about it, it was just plain
nasty.  Sounded absolutely primeval on the lower end and guitar-stinging on
the upper.  While most guys neglect the middle octave in that position, Ron
had no problem making it sound bluesy and swinging.
   One thing that I've always dug about Ron's playing is that he manages to
sound deeply immersed in traditional blues harp, yet fresh and inventive at
the same time.  Quite a bit of his playing sounds traditional but you can't
quite put your finger on where it came from.  Probably because he has
tweaked it.  "When you change it, you own it," he explained to Joe's class.
He also has no problem mixing influences in a single solo.  He might follow
something that sounds vaguely Little Walter-ish with a quote from Sonny Boy
ll or Junior Wells and it almost always works.
    In between playing, Ron fielded questions.  Some of his answers appeared
to run counter to the Filisko approach to blues harp.  For example, he
didn't feel it was necessary to spend your playing life chasing or
worshipping the Big Walter tone.  In fact, Ron seemed to feel that once you
reached an acceptable level of tone, your time might be better spent
developing technique and ideas.  He also stated that he was mainly a pucker
player.  Which is as close to blasphemy as you can get at Joe's class!
   Sorin is entirely self-taught.  His father, who passed away when Ron was
12, played viola in the Chicago Symphony.  Ron began learning blues
harmonica a year later at the age of 13.  In a slightly poignant moment, Ron
reflected that he had chosen an instrument and a genre that his dad probably
would have hated.  He confessed that he was self-taught because of his
natural shyness.  Though he went to see all the great players regularly, he
never had the nerve to ask any of them for lessons.  His learning, like that
of many, consisted of dropping a phonograph needle down over and over again
on a record to learn solos and parts.  As a single guy, he spent many of his
evenings at home playing along with the all night blues program on the
radio.  He told the class that he used to sneak into old apartment building
lobbies to play; just to hear the resonance from the ancient tile floors.
He did this with such regularity that the tenants would hit their buzzers to
drive him off.
   A couple of Ron's observations that struck me as interesting.  He stated
that he does quite a bit of playing while walking.  He never specified
whether or not it was being locked into a rhythm or physically relaxed that
helped him, but insisted that ideas came easier and he had developed quite a
few harmonica instrumentals while walking.  He also stated that it gave him
great pleasure to play counter rhythmically against the groove.  To mess
with time.  Part of this had to do with a sort of musical
claustrophobia.  Ron said that he occasionally felt "trapped", almost
panicky while playing a 12 bar shuffle groove and had to do something break
out.  He also confessed to being addicted to the elusive "zone" where ideas
flow effortlessly.  He said he's happy if he can hit that moment once in an
evening and it's what keeps him coming back to the harp.  He also espoused
an interesting theory that if one makes "mistakes" in the course of playing
the blues that either sound like they fit or can be musically resolved to
sound pleasing; these "mistakes" ought to be taped or memorized.  That
enough of these aberrations can used to help build yourself a unique style.
   I recall when I met Ron nearly 30 years ago, he told me that he had been
copping T-Bone Walker horn charts on harp.  He found that they made great
background riffs behind vocalists and soloists.  That's so Ron Sorin, a
thinking man's blues harpist.  Truth be told, probably every region of the
country has a little known monster player like this.  I'm grateful that Joe
Filisko stumbled upon one of Ron's obscure recordings and started
investigating.  It was great to see Ron get to have some long-overdue
recognition.  Kudos to Joe Filisko for ferreting out a wonderful player and
showcasing him for other harp players.

Mick Zaklan

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