In recent decades, we’ve tended to think of the harmonica mainly as a blues instrument. But there was a time when harmonica-players were treated with a lot more respect. Woodstock music veteran John Sebastian has long used the blues harp as accompaniment to his singing and guitar-playing, but his father – also named John – played harmonica in concert halls with philharmonic orchestras. During the 1930s, classical composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Benjamin wrote major works specifically for the instrument, to be played on stages all over the world by virtuosi like Larry Adler.
While rock bands were appropriating blues styles and instruments including the harp in the 1970s, a couple of other, more experimental strands of harmonica work were moving forward under the radar. In America, Howard Levy, one of the founding members of the Flecktones, figured out how to play a diatonic harp chromatically using a technique called “overblowing,” inspiring a new generation to stretch the bounds of what the instrument can do. And in Europe and South America, a bunch of jazz musicians were adapting the harmonica to their own style of performance.
Toots Thielemans, a Belgian who just retired from the music scene a few months ago at the age of 92, was the most famous of the jazz musicians who mastered the mouth harp, and many regard him as the greatest chromatic harmonica-player ever. Even if you don’t listen to jazz, you know his work: That was his harp on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, and he recorded the iconic original version of the Sesame Street theme.
Thielemans performed and recorded widely and influenced a lot of younger players. One of his most ardent and accomplished disciples is a guy named William Galison – so accomplished, in fact, that the folks at Children’s Television Workshop turned to him when they wanted to cut a fresh version of the theme song for Sesame Street. He has performed and recorded with musicians as diverse as Jaco Pastorius, Carly Simon, Sting, Barbra Streisand, Donald Fagen, Peggy Lee, Chaka Khan, Astrud Gilberto, Ruth Brown, John Gorka, Ivan Neville and Dar Williams.
He was also romantically involved with Madeleine Peyroux and recorded an album with her in 2003, Got You on My Mind, that spent a lot of time in legal limbo after an acrimonious breakup. Galison can play in any style imaginable, but leans toward the jazz end of the spectrum, often with a Brazilian flavor. Thielemans himself dubbed Galison “the most original and individual of the new generation of harmonica players.”
Now, does this sound like the sort of person you’d get a chance to hear perform at the Gardiner Library? Think again. He’ll be there this Saturday, July 5, beginning at 7:30 p.m. It’s the first in a new ongoing program called the Gardiner Community Concert Series that will turn the library into an intimate listening room on the first Saturday of each month. These gatherings will kick off at 6 p.m. with a potluck dinner, followed by an open mic at 6:45, with the featured performer taking the “stage” at 7:30.
The concert with William Galison on July 5 will be followed by Carla Ulbricht on August 2, the Black Horse Riders on September 6 and Hudson Valley Sally on November 1. For more information, visit www.gardinerlibrary.org/gardiner.
William Galison in concert, Saturday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., free, Gardiner Library, 133 Farmers’ Turnpike, Gardiner; (845) 255-1255, www.gardinerlibrary.org/gardiner.