Sweet but with a rough edge, and deeply emotional, the harmonica is an unmistakable – but not often heard – jazz voice. As Normand Glaude has been increasingly adding harmonica to his jazz shows over the past few years he's been delighted at how many people in his audiences recognize and enjoy it.
“Every time I get the harmonica out there's always a number of people that come to me and say 'Wow, I love the way you sound. It just reminds me of Toots!'”
That's Toots Thielemans, the Belgian-American master of the jazz harmonica, who in his 65-year career turned it into a recognized jazz instrument and collaborated with the cream of jazz musicians. He's one of Glaude's musical heroes, and Glaude will present a tribute to his music on Friday, April 6.
Glaude is a well-appreciated member of Ottawa's jazz scene. For almost three decades, he's played double and electric bass, produced shows, and been a recording engineer and producer. He's a favourite accompanist, especially for local jazz vocalists, and has recorded many albums in his Morning Anthem Studio.
But the harmonica is both the oldest and the newest addition to his repertoire. It was the first instrument he learned, at age 4 or 5 – “I was playing reels and jigs and such as a kid.” But he let it go in favour of other instruments, eventually concentrating on the bass. “I really enjoyed being part of the foundation of the music in any group, orchestration, and that role [as bassist] has been one that I think has fit my personality really well.”
About 2010 he picked up the harmonica again. “I've always enjoyed the sound on bass, but it just doesn't have the appeal and the voice that, say, the harmonica has. It was very much of a little secret.”
Then Glaude played the harmonica for Ottawa guitarist Tim Bedner, whose album, Of Light and Shadow, he was producing. “Tim really enjoyed what I did for him, to the point where he asked me to do the whole CD. And from that point on, I realized how great of a sound that was.” [Read further about Glaude's harmonica playing on that album]
Other musicians he performs with have also been enthusiastic, to the point of often telling him “Don't forget to bring your harmonica!” he said. “So there's got to be something special with that voice.”
Like Thielemans, Glaude plays the chromatic harmonica, which is used by most jazz harmonica players. Unlike the more common diatonic harmonic played by folk and blues musicians, the chromatic harmonica can play all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale. It is particularly suited for playing lead and melodies.
“Now there are some great jazz players that are able to play on a diatonic harmonica. Howard Levy is a good example, and it's just phenomenal what this guy is capable of doing. But to me it doesn't have the depth of the sound that a chromatic harmonica has.”
Learning through trial and error
For Glaude, the last seven years have been a process of “trial and error” on his own, because he hasn't been able to find jazz harmonica teachers.
“I did look to find a teacher around town obviously there's nobody. I looked around Montreal, I asked around a bit, but I haven't found anybody really locally. I had one lesson via Skype once with a guy in North Vancouver. The one lesson helped me in a few little things but not as much as I would have hoped.”
“I feel better-equipped now on my own, with what I have now than I was, say four or five years ago, but I'd still love to have some good pointers.”
I think that music is both heartfelt, but it's also calculated. I think that the analytical capability I've developed as an engineer has helped me tremendously in understanding the mechanics of how you can voice an emotion on an instrument.
In fact, one of his best sources for instruction has been YouTube – carefully watching Thielemans and other performers as they play on those videos.
“Toots had a very long career. He's been recorded quite a bit, both live and on albums, and having the luxury nowadays to see all of this on YouTube is an incredible resource! You can see a lot. You can learn a lot just from observing the minute changes in his movements, his mouth, whatever else – enough for me to learn some tricks.”
He's even experimented with the microphone he uses with the harmonica, and how he holds it. He tried half a dozen different microphones before deciding that an old Beyerdynamic best complemented his microphone and his style.
For live shows, he doesn't do the standard method of cupping the microphone, but instead just holds it within his hands as he plays. “It restricts some of the effects that you can do with the hands, which is unfortunate, but you find other ways to get similar effects using your throat and your mouth muscles.”
This experimental approach may have its roots in Glaude's academic background. He has a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an M.Eng. His current day job is as a software engineer.
“I think that music is both heartfelt, but it's also calculated. I think that the analytical capability I've developed as an engineer has helped me tremendously in understanding the mechanics of how you can voice an emotion on an instrument. It's helped me as a producer as well in the studio.”
He built up his professional studio through his love of engineering.
“Not too long after I had my degrees, I started buying equipment to do recording. And for me, it was a way to mix both the electrical engineering background that I had and my passion for music. That quickly became a sickness that enticed me to buy more equipment, and to play with the production side of music. So, yes, it's been more of a life-long dream and here I am living it!”
And because he's worked with other musicians as a producer, that experience “has allowed me to be critical of myself, but in a very constructive way – the same way that I have to be constructive with the artists that pass through my studio, and trying to squeeze the best performance, trying to get the most emotions out of a performance. I can use the same recipes, if you will, on myself, and it's been very helpful.”
"Toots is the one for sure"
Glaude admires several current jazz harmonica players, including Hendrik Meurkens, Grégoire Maret, and Yvonnick Prené, and hopes to check them out eventually in New York. But his real hero is Thielemans, who died in 2016.
“Toots is the one for sure. He's got such a unique sound, and he makes, I should say used to make, his harmonica speak.”
The other musicians “don't have all of the soul that Toots has. They have each their individual sound, but I'm still looking up to Toots' soul.”
Thielemans was also an important innovator on the harmonica, Glaude said. “Toots found ways to make the limits of the instrument shine. It's a difficult instrument to play, and some lines are really hard to do on the harmonica. But, for some reason, Toots was able to find the right lines that fit so well with the harmonica. I think this is where his genius lies, from a musical perspective.”
He also put his own stamp on standards such as “Days of Wine and Roses”. “The arrangement [of that song] that goes into two keys was Toots' arrangement. And that arrangement ended up being on the Affinity album that he recorded with Bill Evans.”
Although Thielemans did play the Ottawa and Montreal jazz festivals, Glaude never heard him live.
“It's really sad. I discovered Toots really late in my musical career. I had some of his albums, but I really fell in love with his sound probably about 7 or 8 years ago. That's when I started trying to find new techniques and started to be serious about the harmonica.
“Then probably about three or four years ago, I decided I was just going to go see Toots. He wasn't touring much in the U.S. any more, so I figured I'd just get a ticket and go to Europe and check him out. And I was just about to go and buy a ticket – and he announced that he had cancelled all of his shows because he was retiring.
“That was only a year or so before he passed away. And I missed out. I was just about to go and visit him in his home town with his home trio – but I missed out.”
Glaude has listened to and studied many of Thielemans' albums, however.
“Probably the one that I find the most interesting and appealing is Chez Toots. It's an album he did with a number of singers that mostly contains French songs. It's so great because the essence of the harmonica really comes out in those tunes. There's nothing too flashy about this album, It's just an extremely lyrical album.”
He's also impressed with Thielemans' Brazil project albums. “They are in a completely different direction because it's all Brazilian music, but the collaboration with his producer of the time, Oscar Castro-Neves, and various other greet composers such as Ivan Lins, it's so great! It makes the harmonica shine in such a beautiful, lyrical way.”
And he also recommends “more challenging” Thielemans albums, like East Coast West Coast, in which he collaborated with many renowned jazz musicians with different styles. “Some of these are absolute gems.”
The right balance of audience and content
The April 6 show at GigSpace will be Glaude's first show as leader, and one he's been considering for several years. He said he wanted to start relatively small – especially with the “very large” mandate of doing a tribute to Thielemans “because he was such a great musician. For me, it's the right balance of audience and content to start with. I'm fairly comfortable with that, but I'm sure two days before the show I'll be very anxious.”
In picking the set list from Thielemans' huge repertoire, “I focused on songs that I thought were very characteristic of his sound. I chose compositions – well, there are some obligatory ones that I'll have to play – but there are other compositions that he wrote that are equally stunning yet very seldom heard. So I chose many of these compositions. Or I chose songs that Toots left such a large imprint on them that he essentially made them his own songs, even though he wasn't the creator of the songs. And mostly these are songs that people have heard, but never anybody else other than Toots playing them.”
“I figured that doing a tribute to Toots would allow people to hear, again, his genius outside of their living rooms and in a live setting.”
The songs will range from Thielemans' most well-known piece, “Bluesette”, to the lesser-known “Waltz for Sonny”, which he wrote for hard bop jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
Glaude decided to perform the music with piano trio and harmonica – a format Thielemans commonly used – and picked three well-known Ottawa jazz musicians: pianist J.P. Allain, drummer Scott Latham, and bassist Tom Denison. “I play with J.P. all the time, and I really enjoy his musicality and his versatility in the jazz genre. He's a close collaborator of mine for decades – so that was pretty easy to choose. And I had been playing with Tom Denison and Scott Latham quite a bit. For me it was just a natural fit to put those three together.”
Playing harmonica gives Glaude an extra connection to the audience.
“As much as I love playing bass, my best applause when I play bass is seeing peoples' feet stomp, or people's bodies move to the rhythm of the music. Whereas when I'm playing harmonica, especially such a lyrical instrument, it's the emotion in people's faces that rewards me the most. It touches people in a very different way.
“This ability to touch people differently than with the bass is really appealing to me.”
Read stories about Glaude's harmonica playing on OttawaJazzScene.ca: