Jay Gaunt

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Jay Gaunt ~ Harmonicopia

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  • If you’re a harmonica player, chances are your recordings will be filed under "blues." It’s a genre ideally suited to the instrument’s tonal palette and range. But in truly talented hands (or should that be mouths?), the humble harmonica is capable of a much more.

    Take Jay Gaunt’s aptly titled Harmonicopia. There are blues to be found here, to be sure. But Gaunt is clearly a man with interests beyond twelve-bar convention.

    Gaunt, who doesn’t sing, kicks off his debut with a jazzy "Listen Here," an instrumental excursion that finds his incisive harp accented by powerful brass punch of the Royal Horns. Then it’s a moody take on the Allman Brothers classic, "Midnight Rider," which finds Gaunt weaving his acoustic harp through an evocative arrangement featuring burbling electric piano and a string section.

    Gaunt follows with three of his own compositions, all instrumentals co-written with Kathy Sheppard. "Catnip" and "Misty Muse" sound pretty much like their titles suggest, the former bright and bouncy while the latter is restrained and evocative. "Wonder Boy" is jazzy in a way reminiscent of both Dave Brubeck (think "Take Five") and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans.

    Guest vocalist Victor Wainwright lends his gruff pipes to the next four tracks as Gaunt turns his attention to the blues. Bobby Charles’ "Why Are People Like That" gets a straightforward treatment with Gaunt blowing hard-edged amplified harp, but Muddy Waters’ "Louisiana Blues" features spooky electric washboard and spacey guitar effects along with a rhythmic reinvention; it changes the tune substantially but nonetheless works remarkably well. "Home Of The Blues" is an extended grinder that lets Gaunt stretch out with both acoustic and amplified interludes, while "Devil Dealt The Blues" finds him borrowing a bit from the classic "Big Boss Man" beat to excellent effect.

    Gaunt shows his adventurous side with a jazzy rendition of "Greensleeves." In truth it’s a bit of an awkward fit, more interesting than engaging; still, Gaunt deserves credit for the sheer musical audacity of it all. And he returns to somewhat more conventional territory with the last two cuts. "Double Shuffle" is just that, a harmonica rumble between Gaunt and guest Brandon Bailey, with the two trading licks in a dazzling display of hard-core harmonica virtuosity. The party comes to a close with a cover of Peter Green’s "Rattlesnake Shake," marking the return of Wainwright for a dark and dangerous sounding conclusion that works on every level.

    Gaunt is backed by a fine band, with keyboard wiz Lester Snell playing a large part in proceedings - he helped with string and horn arrangements and orchestrations. Theirs may not be household names but all participants acquit themselves admirably, providing solid yet unobtrusive support throughout. It’s clearly Gaunt’s show, though, and even though a little harmonica typically goes a long way, he manages to maintain interest with great tone and a genuinely creative approach.

    Gaunt is an excellent harmonica player, but there are lots of those around. Harmonicopia succeeds in part thanks to his considerable chops, but it’s Gaunt’s musical curiosity and his ability to pull off the unexpected that sustains interest through repeated plays. He’s definitely one to watch...!"

    John Taylor, Blogcritics

  • Here's a most enthralling and daring second release from young harmonica ace, Jay Gaunt - a 12-track release, "Harmonicopia" features seven vastly varied instrumentals and five tracks featuring the big voice of singer and pianist Victor Wainwright - just on vocals here. The recording is very much a 'Made in Memphis' outing - recorded at the late, great Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, and with top local players such as Skip Pitts, Dave Cousar and Josh Roberts on guitars, the ace rhythm section of Steve Potts (drums) and Dave Smith (bass), along with Lester Snell and Rick Steff on keyboards and a stellar horn section.

    Gaunt, like one of his mentor's, Jason Ricci - who co-produces some numbers here - is a most inventive and melodic player with outstanding virtuosity for such a young man. It's hard to pigeon-hole this as a straight blues album as it is so varied, and all the better for it.

    Proceedings get underway with a funky trip through tenor sax man Eddie Harris's "Listen Here", with the punchy horns of Jim Spake, Gary Topper, Lannie McMillan and Marc Franklin sharing the spotlight with Jay Gaunt's sparkling harmonica work; The Allman Brothers "Midnight Rider" sees Gregg Allman's vocal replaced by Gaunt's weeping harmonica, with the New Memphis Strings giving the piece an almost orchestral feel.

    The original "Catnip", one of four co-writes by Gaunt and Kathy Shepherd, again sees a sterling contribution from the horn section and embellished by some impressive high-register harmonica work. Victor Wainwright first appears on a gritty cover of the late Bobby Charles "Why Are People Like That?", with slinky slide solo from Josh Roberts, who trades licks with Gaunt here . . . a definite highlight. Muddy Waters "Louisiana Blues" sees some tough Chicago flavoured harmonica, with another impressive Wainwright vocal, with this time, Dave Cousar on guitar and electric washboard from Cody Dickinson . . . of the famed North Mississippi Allstars and Hill Country Review.

    "Home Of The Blues" is a nod to Memphis co-written by Charley Burch, a slow blues again featuring Victor Wainwright; Burch's "Devil Dealt The Blues" is a jaunty Jimmy Reed type shuffle, with Jay Gaunt's fluid lines in and out of the vocal. For a quite different direction check-out the beautiful version of "Greensleeves" . . . the Larry Adler-like harmonica enhanced by the harp playing of Lyrika Holmes. Another gem is the swinging instrumental "Double Shuffle", a twin harmonica showcase, with fellow player Brandon Bailey aboard, and driven in glorious fashion by the 'engine room' of Dave Smith and Steve Potts.

     

    This highly recommended album ends with a cover of Peter Green's "Rattlesnake Shake", fine slide again here by Josh Roberts, with Gaunt replicating Green's original guitar hook . . . a suitably memorable closer, showing that the future of the humble harmonica is safe and well in the hands of such a skilled practitioner as this young man. Don't think I mentioned it, but he's just 16 years old!

    Grahame Rhodes, bluesinthenorthwest.com

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