A jaunty and pleasing instrumental album
From the Los Angeles area, David Naiditch once half joked, “Harmonica players are about as welcome at bluegrass festivals as the mosquitoes that come out to feast.” That may be often true, especially when the harmonica player is not well versed in the nuances of the bluegrass music and the jamming etiquette associated with the genre. However, in the hands of a chromatic harmonica master like Naiditch, the instrument should be heard much more with the standard bluegrass instruments. When properly played, a fully chromatic instrument (capable of playing in all keys) produces a bouncy lilt that can handle even the most intricate melody. Perhaps that’s why, nearly a century ago, Judge George D. Hay invited DeFord Bailey to play tunes like “John Henry” and “Fox Chase” for about 15 years on the Grand Ole Opry. And today, Canadian Mike Stevens has also made a name for himself using the harmonica in a bluegrass context, but he doesn’t use chromatic instruments like David Naiditch’s Seydel Saxony or Hohner CX-12 jazz models.
David Naiditch is well known in the Los Angeles music scene, and he’s equally comfortable with blues, country, swing, and gypsy jazz as he is with bluegrass. Legendary bluesman Sonny Terry got him started during his teen years. By the 1960s, Naiditch was teaching and performing throughout southern California. Fast forward to the mid-1990s, and we find David focusing on the chromatic harmonica, playing in all keys, and improvising many styles of music. In 2005, he produced an eclectic album with 36 tunes called “Harmonica and Guitar Duets.” His highly-acclaimed 2008 CD, “High Desert Bluegrass Sessions,” included Christian Ward’s fiddle, and I miss that on his new and lively 2011 release, “Bluegrass Harmonica,” especially when slower tunes like “The Lover’s Waltz” and “Blue Violet Waltz” are sweetly blown. However, with the benefits of multi-tracking, twin harmonicas offer both melody and harmony to the former tune, as well as Dixie Hoedown, Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Jerusalem Ridge. Naidtich is clearly after that alluring fiddle sound with his instrument, and he wisely picks some favorite jam tunes. I do wish that he would’ve also demonstrated a few more bluegrass harmonica backup techniques and fills on the CD.
Naidtich is clearly well versed in many of the standards that are oft-heard in bluegrass jam sessions. He kicks the album off with a rapid-fire version of “Blackberry Blossom,” trading breaks with the masterful Pat Cloud on banjo who clearly pushes the melody into adventurous new territory. While the CD emphasizes the instrumental work of Naiditch and Cloud, guitarist Eric Uglum injects thrilling breaks in Dixie Hoedown, St. Anne’s Reel, Gold Rush, Cherokee Shuffle, and Cuckoo’s Nest. Sadly, no mandolin breaks are heard, and that instrument (also played by Uglum) is relegated to chordal accompaniment. Guitarist Steve Trovato appears with an expressive break on “Blue Violet Waltz,” always a crowd-pleaser at fiddle contests. The low end is solidly fueled by acoustic bassist Austin Ward (Eric’s son).
This is a jaunty and pleasing instrumental album, and some might even call it somewhat quirky. The repertoire is fairly standard, and the featured lead instruments are chromatic harmonica, banjo and guitar. It’s clearly a treat to hear the potential of chromic harmonica within the bluegrass context. David is currently working on a Gypsy jazz album with Gonzalo Bergara, and I look forward to hearing that. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, Oregon)