Jason Rosenblatt's latest CD, Wiseman's Rag, is a love letter – to old-time jazz, blues, and ragtime, and to the harmonica. But there's a twist.

Jason Rosenblatt (photo by Jacob Aspler, provided by the artist)
Jason Rosenblatt (photo by Jacob Aspler, provided by the artist)
“I wanted to have something that on the one hand, was definitely recognizable as blues and jazzy, but had some additional personality, something a little weird to it, a little wonky,” Rosenblatt says.

The Montreal pianist and vocalist will release the CD in Ottawa on Saturday at GigSpace. And up front and centre will be his harmonica – which was the primary reason he made this CD.

Rosenblatt said he's one of the few musicians who can play a blues (diatonic) harmonica chromatically – that is, in the standard chromatic scale used on Western instruments like the piano. That involves special performance techniques called overblowing and overdrawing, which Rosenblatt learned from harmonica master Howard Levy and has been working to perfect for many years.

Most jazz harmonica players, such as Toots Thielemans or Grégoire Maret, use the chromatic harmonica instead, which allows playing in any scale and in any key. Rosenblatt said he viewed the Chromatic harmonica as "a totally different instrument. The embouchure and the mapping of the notes are both different. Although this is up for debate, I believe that because of the 'bends' the diatonic harmonica tends to be more expressive."

He said he visualizes the harmonica in different ways depending on the music.

“When I'm playing klezmer music or Jewish music, I'm seeing it like a violin. And I find when I'm playing jazz, I'm thinking more in terms of a trumpet. I find that when I transcribe solos I usually look towards trumpet players because the skips and jumps, and even the range of the trumpet is closer to harmonica than a saxophone is.”

He's been playing harmonica for years in his other projects, which include the Jewish/Turkish crossover group, Shtreiml. But he kept getting challenged by fans of harmonica music who loved blues and roots music. “It started getting frustrating that people in that world were [saying], 'Well, you say that you can play blues, and you say you play jazz, and you're interested in that music, how come you've never put out an album?' "

“And I finally decided this was a good opportunity to put out this album. It's really an album of the styles of music that I've enjoyed since childhood. It was a long time coming.”

Wiseman's Rag CD cover
Wiseman's Rag CD cover
The CD consists of 13 original songs, an approachable mixture of cheerful ragtime numbers, blues laments, upbeat swing tunes, and a few reflective jazz waltzes and ballads. Rosenblatt says Jelly Roll Morton and early Louis Armstrong were among its major influences.

“But the sound I was trying to get was something that was not necessarily authentically blues or authentically ragtime, but to have a little bit of what I call a slightly twisted approach.”

For example, in “Fairmount Blues”, the chord progression is based on a Charlie Parker blues progression. “So I tried to take a blues or a ragtime feel but superimpose a Charlie Parker – well I wouldn't call it modern at this point, it's 70 years old – but a slightly more adventuresome chord progression.”

And the closer, “Bay Mir Bist Du Mies”, is a take-off on the 1937 Andrews Sisters hit, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”. That original title means “to me you're beautiful”; Rosenblatt said his title means “to me you are ugly”. His version is based on the chord progressions of the original, but with a gypsy jazz feel, and a “somewhat ugly melody on top. Something a little angular and not as jovial as 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schön'.”

To get that twisted approach, he chose adventuresome musicians.

“I hired a phenomenal guitar player by the name of Joe Grass, who's not a straight-ahead jazz guitar player, but someone who understands roots and Americana, and also understands for instance the music of Bill Frisell, getting a little weird on the instrument and creating sounds as opposed to necessarily just playing standard bebop licks or blues licks. And again with the drummer, Evan Tighe, an Ottawa native, [who is] interested again in avant-garde music and is also not just going to play shuffle but he'll add his own voice to the album.”

Playing bass on the CD is Joel Kerr, whom Ottawa jazz audiences have frequently heard playing with avant-garde trumpeter Craig Pedersen as well as in his own projects. He's Rosenblatt's first-call bassist: “he plays so in tune, his solos are always beautiful, and his sense of time is fantastic. And he's game for anything.”

From an early age, Rosenblatt said, his first love in terms of music and musical styles was blues, early jazz, and music of New Orleans: for example, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, and Django Reinhardt. That was the music his parents listened to. “Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Paul Butterfield, those were my early harmonica idols. And in terms of piano it was like Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.”

When he got tired of playing classical piano exercises, he said, his parents would “put on Professor Longhair and say, 'Well, why don't you try to copy his bass line and what he does with his left hand and work on this?' And that's really how I started to learn music by ear.”

It wasn't until he was 18 or 19, he said, that he started to love modern jazz musicians like Bill Evans and John Coltrane. One of the songs on the CD, “Hutchison” was inspired by Evans, “one of those melancholy Bill Evans' waltzes. One of my first jazz albums that I really fell in love with was Sunday at the Village Vanguard. That album reminds me of a gray day in the autumn in New York, and that's really the feeling behind 'Hutchison'.”

When I'm playing klezmer music or Jewish music, I'm seeing [the harmonica] like a violin. And I find when I'm playing jazz, I'm thinking more in terms of a trumpet. I find that when I transcribe solos I usually look towards trumpet players because the skips and jumps, and even the range of the trumpet is closer to harmonica than a saxophone.
– Jason Rosenblatt

He started playing harmonica at age 16, and played underage in blues bars. He first heard Howard Levy in the mid-90s in the Béla Fleck and the Flecktones CD, UFO Tofu. “I had absolutely no idea what he was doing!”

A year or two later, his father found an instructional VHS tape from Homespun Tapes, called “New Directions for Harmonica”, in which Levy explained his harmonica techniques. “The tape tore many times because I played it over and over and over again, just watching.”

“The concept is relatively simple: here's an instrument that's not designed to be played chromatically but you can. Those notes exist. It's the execution, sitting down like any other instrument and really mapping out where are the notes on the instrument. [The tape] gave me the kick in the butt to say 'OK I finally have to do this'.”

He sat down at a piano with his harmonica, and listened for notes by trial and error. “Here's a C, here's a C#, here's a D. Breathing in, breathing out. Bending the notes. And then in 2004 I had a great opportunity to actually study with Howard through a grant through the Canada Council for the Arts. Since that time, my playing has improved dramatically, but it's still an uphill battle. There's always room for improvement. I'm always working on it.”

The harmonica is a bidirectional instrument, with blow reeds and draw reeds. “You can blow out to get a blow reed to vibrate and when you breathe in, the draw reed vibrates. But then you have bends, when you create this pressure that lowers the pitch of the note, and then you have overblows where it raises the pitch. And it's a matter of using those techniques and using them properly and knowing which holes you can overblow on and which you can't, to the point that you forget that you're inhaling and exhaling and all you see in your head are notes. I visualize a piano keyboard in my head. I'm looking at a piano when I'm playing, and I don't consciously at this point have to think that I have to breathe in here or have to exhale there.”

He said he normally plays either harmonica or piano, although he can hold the harmonica in one hand and play one-handed piano. “It's very difficult. Howard's gotten really good at it. He can play left-hand stride piano and harmonica; he holds it in his right hand, and if you close your eyes you could swear it was two people playing at the same time. But I haven't reached that level yet."

Rosenblatt released the CD in Montreal last Sunday in the Power Jazz series at the Segal Centre, and had a full house in its 140-seat Studio Theatre. He said he'll also take it to the Rex in Toronto in late January, and hopes to tour it to New York in February or March.

In Montreal, he said, he paid tribute to those who had inspired the album. “I played some Professor Longhair songs and I played some old-school blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. And also a holiday song: I played one of my favourite songs that my grandmother used to sing for Hanukkah.”

At GigSpace on Saturday, he expected the group (with Kerr, Tighe, and guitarist Cordell Henebury sitting in for Grass, who is on tour) will play through the CD – and then add some surprises.

    – Alayne McGregor

Jason Rosenblatt will release Wiseman's Rag in Ottawa in a concert at GigSpace at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 12.