German-raised musician Hendrik Meurkens became so enamored of and passionate about Brazilian jazz, after years of expensive, formal training on vibraphone, he switched to chromatic harmonica. Perhaps this was not the greatest career move for a jazz musician but call Meurkens a risk-taker. His enthusiasm for Brazilian music and culture comes across clearly.
Meurkens’ current release, “Amazon River,” for Blue Toucan Music, is a collection of contemporary and classic Brazilian jazz and pop tunes, including compositions by Antonio Carlos Jobim, who is best known for “Girl From Ipanema;” Dori Caymmi; and Toninho Horta. All are exquisitely rendered on any number of chromatic harmonicas he plays. Meurkens brings his Brazilian touch to Cornerstone Cafe and Bistro in Metuchen on Wednesday, July 5, accompanied by the musicians who accompany him on “Amazon River,” including Klaus Muller on piano, Gustavo Amarante on bass and Adriano Santos, drums and percussion.
“As long as I’ve played jazz, I’ve been interested in Brazilian music,” says the Hamburg-raised Meurkens in a phone interview from his home in Montclair, where he lives with his wife, a Manhattan real estate agent, and their two daughters. Meurkens’ father, a Dutchman, was an executive at N.V. Philips, the electronics conglomerate and his mother was a housewife. “I heard records of jazz and Brazilian jazz as a kid, and I just liked the music,” he says, adding that while his parents weren’t musicians, they had a record collection and his aunt took him to the philharmonic and opera shows in his youth.
Meurkens began with piano lessons and later played drums in the basement with friends, but at 16 he got serious, devoting himself to vibraphone after hearing recordings by Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. The vibraphone, often called simply “the vibes,” were invented in the U.S. in 1921 primarily as a jazz instrument. It is similar in appearance to the xylophone but uses metal bars instead of wood; it also has a sustain pedal like a piano. “The vibes seemed the best marriage between piano and drums,” Meurkens says. After attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1977 to 1980 he moved back to Germany for two years, then moved to Brazil in 1982, at the invitation of Brazilian harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn. Einhorn put Meurkens up for his first few months, then he took an apartment in Rio and began a regular residency at Rio’s then-popular Bar 21.
Of his gutsy move to Brazil, Meurkens says it wasn’t so gutsy after all. “I didn’t know a whole lot of Portuguese at the time, and really I learned to speak it well after I came back. But I did know Mauricio Einhorn, whom I met when he was on the road in Europe, and he put me up for a while and showed me around the clubs in Rio.”
After more time back in Germany and Europe, Meurkens knew he had to come to New York to make a name for himself as a jazz harmonica player. He had first heard Belgian harmonica jazz great Toots Thielemans when he was 19, and he says that the experience was a revelation. Meurkens made the move to New York in 1992. “I wanted to be in the jazz capital of the world, and fortunately, I already had a recording contract with Concord Jazz,” he says, adding that the late Concord Jazz founder, Carl Jefferson, took a personal interest in Meurkens’ career, helping him get a work permit, and sponsoring his first few months in New York.
Meurkens considers his recording contract with Concord Jazz, an internationally respected jazz label, a quantum leap forward for his career. “It gave me respect and it brought me to America,” Meurkens says. It helped him get radio airplay and a touring base in the U.S. He recorded six albums for Concord between 1990 and 1996. Almost all of his Concord Jazz releases are Brazilian-flavored, Meurkens says, and he was able to carve a niche for himself in the world of Brazilian jazz, which American audiences have been receptive to since Brazilian composer Jobim had the crossover pop hit with “Girl From Impanema.”
Meurkens lived in Manhattan for 11 years but after he and his wife had children, they moved to Montclair in 2003. “Once I came back to America, I didn’t promote my vibes playing,” he says, and instead, he just marketed himself as a harmonica player. “In Manhattan, I didn’t have a car, or the desire to schlep those vibes all over the place; a cabbie doesn’t want to pick you up when he sees you standing there with vibes. But since I moved to the suburbs, the vibes have come back into the picture, now that we have a minivan for the kids.”
Meurkens has 16 albums out as a bandleader, and he has recorded for a variety of other jazz labels through the years, including Challenge Records, the Acoustic Music label, and even Evidence Music, a jazz and blues label based in Conshohocken, PA.
While it is hard not to compare Meurkens to Toots Thielemans, Meurkens clearly has his own style and his own, growing group of fans. “He has had a special kind of influence,” Meurkens says. “I never really copied him or transcribed him but I began picking up things on my own. It was not that I was consciously trying to copy him but rather it was the sound he gets that was my inspiration.”
At his July 5 Cornerstone performance, the crowd can expect to be treated to an artful blend of traditional jazz and lots of Brazilian jazz and pop tunes and to be transported, musically, at least, to Rio. Although he has written plenty of other Brazilian jazz tunes himself, Meurkens includes just a sampling of his own tunes, “Mountain
Drive,” “Mosquito Tongue,” and “The Girl in the Window” on “Amazon River.” Like a lot of musicians who play jazz for a living, he prefers instead to rely on the master composers in the idiom, people like Jobim, Caymmi, and Horta.
Contrary to what some fans of harmonica players may think, the chromatic harmonica is a very difficult instrument to play well, Meurkens says. “It is very hard,” he says, “because the challenge is with the breathing, to make the music smooth and elegant and not choppy or corny. To make it sound really nice is really difficult.”
Hendrik Meurkens Quartet with Helio Alves, Wednesday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., Cornerstone Cafe and Bistro, 25 New Street, Metuchen. 732-549-5306.