If Toots Thielemans set the stage for the classic birth of the chromatic harmonica in music then its reincarnation was set about by Hendrik Meurkens. Now a new generation is tearing up what is rationally possible and remaking the harmonic end of the instrument, combining what is possible of its affiliation with the horn, the violin and with the piano as well. Prominent among them is Gregoire Maret and the sadly lesser-known Spaniard, Antonio Serrano. All that is about to change with the release of this magnificent album, La Extraña Pareja comprising a series of remarkable duets between Mr. Serrano and the Argentine-born, Madrid-based pianist, Federico Lechner; two musicians with an intense and empathetic affinity for the others’ art. Without really meaning to, the album recalls another famous duo session—that between another stellar pianist, the Canadian, Andy Milne and Gregoire Maret; an album called Scenarios (ObliqSound, 2007). This album, La Extraña Pareja, is equally exciting, yet vastly different because the players themselves—Mr. Maret and Mr. Milne and Mr. Serrano and Mr. Lechner—are polar opposites, the former pair being cool and dramatically airy in their intertwining improvisations and the latter musicians engaged in the intense heat of dialogue.
Antonio Serrano has done something quite unique with the harmonica; he has extended its range into what seems like the territory of the tenor saxophone. He has also markedly pitched the harmonica alongside the violin (and sometimes the viola) playing it almost like those stringed instruments, complete with soaring glissandos and theatrical double-stops; all this while playing fluid runs and arpeggios as if he were playing the mighty grand piano as well. Add to that the fact that Mr. Serrano’s playing is so vivid that he sometimes adds a vocal dimension to his playing. He does not sing his harmonics, the way that the late great Albert Mangelsdorff did on the trombone, but there is an almost spectral vocal element to his playing. With all of this remarkable technique at his disposal, Mr. Serrano plays lines with ingenious annunciation, exquisite expression and sublime creativity. It is as if the harmonica were completely re-invented at his command. The superlative expeditious playing of John Coltrane’s masterpiece, “Giant Steps”—not once, but twice—and the epic reinvention of Charlie Parker’s sensational “Donna-Lee” can only be admired with bated breath for their gorgeous creativity and emotional and innovative dialogues between the two musicians. And “Bluff” is a classic waiting to be discovered.
Federico Lechner is another wonderful musician, who plays the piano as if he were making vigorous and sensual love to a woman who responds in like manner. Listening to him play as he echoes his sentimental love-making almost vocally, feels like trespassing on an inner space filled with remarkable sensuality, vivid colours and silken textures. This kind of playing is almost alien to the European and American consciousness, but it is second nature to Latin-America. It comes from musicians being swathed in the diaphanous textures and rhythmic intensity of Afro-Caribbean music; its influences seeming to stem from the dusty shuffle of feet reflecting the polyrhythmic intensity of the drums of delight. Mr. Lechner is one of those pianists—like the Valdés dynasty from Cuba—who is as attuned to the music of Rodrigo as he is to that of the Yoruba drummers. His hands flutter like a sunbird’s wings as the fingers dip in and out of the ebony and ivory keys as if they were flowers whose nectar beckoned hypnotically. Mr. Lechner’s finest moments come on “Patynando” and “Haroula’s Dream”.
Of course the rest of the album is full of breathtaking flashes of brilliance that play out like intensely dazzling intermingling of the genius of two vastly different musicians indulging in polyphony and polyrhythms of the highest order. The result is an album of intense highs that seem to light up the score sheets with rare and mesmerising beauty that echoes long after the last notes of “Giant Steps” fades once more.
Tracks: La Extraña Pareja (Theme From “The Odd Couple”); Zamba Para Mariano; Patynando; I Fall In Love Too Easily; Giant Steps; 26-2; Haroula’s Dream; Donna Lee; Bluff; Recuerdos De Tigre; Giant Steps (Bonus Track).
Personnel: Antonio Serrano: harmonica; Federico Lechner: piano.