Harmonica player, vibraphonist and composer Hendrik Meurkens may have been born in Germany, but listening to his work you realize that he definitely has a Brazilian soul. Over his career, he has not only contributed original music to the canon of Samba Jazz, but he has also helped take the music of Brazil to international audiences both in the United States and in Europe.
Mr. Meurkens recently released Live At Bird’s Eye (Zoho), an album captured live at the eponymous jazz club in Switzerland. The album consolidates over three decades dedicated to samba jazz, choros and bossa nova – genres he fell in love with while he was still a teenager and that only grew in the years he lived in Rio de Janeiro.
We caught up with him over an email interview in which he detailed his career origins, his time in Brazil and also the ideas behind the recording of his latest album, which features Misha Tsiganov (piano), Gustavo Amarante (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums), the latter being the musician who started this interview series early in 2011.
Your bio says that your parents listened to a lot of Brazilian music alongside a jazz collection – what artists did they listen to?
They actually only had one LP in their collection. ‘Astrud Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema’ or something like that. I liked the groove and the songs and from there on I looked for more Brazilian music and one LP let to the next one. It was not difficult to get the records in Hamburg since there were a few really good record stores. I also started reading about the style and so I found out about more names that I wanted to listen to.
During your musical formation, how was the scene in Hamburg, and how did that influence your playing in general?
There was a lot of traditional jazz – Dixieland and New Orleans. And Swing, too. So I heard that a lot and I played in those bands ending up knowing a lot of old standards that many young musicians might find too old or corny. There was (and still is) a big band at the local state-run radio station. They record music all the time and in those days there was a great vibes player by the name of Wolfgang Schlüter in the band. So I had firsthand exposure to some great vibes playing early on.
You started out as a vibraphonist, and that instrument is still strong in your life – but what do you consider yourself first?
I am clearly a harmonica player first. Vibes is now my double and I am happy to play it IF there is an instrument! You can’t travel with it so if the club or festival has one for me then I play it. But all my music works just fine with just the harmonica. That really is my sound. The vibes is a welcome extra color but not the main voice. Also, Brazilian music sounds just great on the ‘gaitinha’.
You lived in Brazil for many years – how long were you there, and in addition to immersing yourself in the music, what other aspects of Brazilian culture influenced your life?
I lived in Rio 1982-83 and I went just for the music. But living there I became more understanding of the culture and the mentality. You can never separate the music from the people. Brazilian music is Brazilian because it is played by Brazilians. The way they talk and feel makes the music what it is. One get a lot from recordings, really a lot, but living there for a while takes it to another level.
Right now I am reading a book about chorinho, in Portuguese and just reading in the language and how they lived is a big step. I wasn’t born in Rio in the 20s or 30s and I didn’t grow up with Pixinguinha so I am using the sources that I have available to get as close as possible to ‘my’ music.
During your time in Brazil, did their joie de vivre get to you or did you keep a healthy distance from the lifestyle? Where exactly did you live?
First I lived with Mauricio Einhorn for a little while. He has an apartment in Leme. From there I moved to a little place in Copacabana and from there with a Portuguese roommate to Leblon. The joie de vivre is inescapable. You just pick it up and fit in. There is no way anyway of insisting in pushing what you think needs to be done, right now and on time. The clocks tick differently, that is part of the lesson. Of course I was different but that also initiated some curiosity, I guess.
You are known as a Brazilian jazz guy, even though you are German by birth… Don’t you sometimes want to bring forth the music of German composers into your own musical format?
I am doing that already by playing and composing choros. Chorinho is VERY European in many ways and this might be the closest connection between Brazil and Europe or even Germany for that matter. I always felt very close to choro, maybe because it comes as natural to me as somebody who was exposed to a lot of classical music growing up. When I hear classic chorinhos by Pixinguinha or Jacob it makes complete sense to me. I am as close to that style as I am to good German beer.
You mention being close to German beer – did you miss it when you were in Brazil, considering the more tropical flavor of Brazilian beers – especially at a time when it was hard to import anything in the country?
The Brazilian beer is actually pretty good, even for my very picky taste. Must be the German brew masters that immigrated to Brazil. It is the American beer that is the problem. One day I’d like to know their secret of how to mess it up so badly.
Who are the composers and performing artists that have influenced you the most?
For Brazilian music I would say Tom Jobim, Jacob, and Pixinguinha first. But this is a dangerous question because there is so much talent in Brazil and there are many, many others that I love. Besides Brazilian music it’s Mozart, Bach, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and MANY more.
On your new album, you have decided to record live in Europe – why did you decide to do so at this time – a live disc?
The band on ‘Live at Bird’s Eye’ is my quartet and we have played together for a long time. We recorded 5 CDs (I think, maybe more) and we played around the globe. Misha Tsiganov, Gustavo Amarante and Adriano Santos not only know my music inside out, they also helped creating it. So with a band like that you get great results on a live recording. After a series of studio recordings it was time to document the band in action!
I’m guessing the logistics were pretty daunting – you played with many musicians from your regular band who reside in the US – many other bandleaders would have assembled a group made up of local cats…
That is also an option and I do have a band in Toronto and another band in Berlin that plays my music and I am always happy to play with them. But the New York band is the one that created the arrangements and has the most mileage on the music.
How did you choose the set list? Were the choices of more obscure covers intentional or is that how it came together?
I like to play music that fits my sound. ‘Dindi’ and ‘Estate’ are great harmonica ballads. ‘Noa, Noa’ is a typical Samba Jazz tune by Sergio Mendes but it is rarely recorded. ‘Minha Saudade’ has long been a favorite of mine. So I am looking for a repertoire that is Samba Jazz and sounds good on my two instruments.
Finally, what is next for you?
I am running for President of the United States as the nominee of the Samba Jazz Party. We advocate a minimum of 10 hours of Samba Jazz a week starting in 1st grade in Elementary School. The pandeiro will be the national instrument.
Cops will carry cuícas instead of Tasers to fight off criminals. Just as nowadays with the cigarettes they will be stickers on all non-Brazilian CDs saying ‘Listening to gringo music will cause serious damage to your health’.
For more information on Meurkens please visit www.hendrikmeurkens.com
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in The Brasilians.