Music News & Reviews

If you’re Corky Siegel, why limit harmonica to one music genre?

Corky Siegel shown in 2008
Corky Siegel shown in 2008

Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout, now in its 26th year, rolls into the Harris Center on Saturday, Jan. 21, with a fresh rotation of stellar musicians and a one-off title that reflects their venturesome diversity.

West Coast-based Hummel has saturated this Ultimate Harmonica Blowout with players who are all over the map in genre, style and past affiliations.

“It’s a lot of harmonica,” said participant and Siegel-Schwall Band co-founder Corky Siegel during a phone call from Chicago. “An incredible array of players. And Mark takes you back to the ’50s. It’s like getting to hear the blues from back then. It’s really special.”

A tip-of-the-iceberg introduction to the rest of the lineup is daunting. Diatonic harmonica master Howard Levy is known for his work with Bela Fleck, avant-garde jazz, Latin jazz, classical music and film soundtracks. Jason (Moon Cat) Ricci, described on his website as a “young, white, queer, skateboarding, punk rock loving, multiple convicted felony having Moon Cat From Maine” was featured on Johnny Winter’s Grammy-winning Step Back CD (2014). And former Crash Test Dummies member Son of Dave (Canadian Benjamin Darvill) is a one-man harmonica, beat-box, percussion and loop station band.

This compelling mashup, with 73-year-old Siegel as elder statesman, will be backed by guitarist Duke Robillard, bassist R.W. Grisby, keyboardist Chris Burns and drummer Wes Starr.

Siegel is an exemplary personification of where blues harmonica has been and may be headed. He has walked through walls of genres and social stigmas like a sort of musical Invisible Man. He performed as a young, white up-and-comer with guitarist Jim Schwall in the primarily black blues bars of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Then he thrived in San Francisco’s psychedelic late 1960s-early 1970s, abstaining from alcohol and drugs while sharing stages with bands such as Santana and Steppenwolf. And he performed in bell-bottom jeans and long hair amid the tuxedoed and closer-cropped denizens of symphonic stages before developing his own Chamber Blues Band, which juxtaposes string quartet and blues aesthetics.

I tried really hard to copy other players, but it didn’t come out.

Corky Siegel

“I play my (own) blues style,” said Siegel. “I don’t sound like the blues guys. Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters were major fans of Siegel-Schwall … because we were doing something really original. We weren’t trying to copy other players. What’s funny about that is I tried really hard to copy other players, but it didn’t come out. So we ended up with what Siegel-Schwall was, a unique way (of) playing blues influenced music.”

“The real epiphany,” said Siegel, “was when Seiji Ozawa came into (the Chicago bar) Big John’s in 1966. I didn’t know who he was. He came in night after night because he was a fan of Siegel-Schwall. And he comes up and goes, ‘I’d like your band to jam with my band.’ So I said who’s your band. And he said ‘The Chicago Symphony.’ Basically, I’ve been pursuing the juxtaposition of blues and classical ever since.”

That trajectory led to a large spectrum of possibilities where the blues element could be very subtle or very intense. Siegel likes to target the center where you hear blues and classical happening at the same time, but they don’t loose their individual character. “Some people could call it revolutionary,” said Siegel. “I might call it: I’ve really painted myself into a corner this time.”

That corner is about to get tighter. Siegel is introducing elements such as jazz, R&B, folk and a world-music vision into his “Different Voices” album, which drops in April.

“I love tradition,” said Siegel, who favors a Hohner Special 20 harmonica. “I love that we take things and make museum pieces out of them so we can preserve them. And Mark following some of the blues traditions, it’s very important. But we don’t want to get stuck there. And tradition does that. But Charlie Musselwhite has the answer for you. He was asked about his tradition, and Charlie said: ‘What do you mean, ‘tradition’? Doesn’t tradition mean change? The tradition to change?’ He said if the tradition weren’t change, we’d all still be beating on logs.”

Mark Hummel’s Ultimate Harmonica Blowout

Who: Corky Siegel, Howard Levy, Duke Robillard, Son of Dave, Jason Ricci and Mark Hummel

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21

Where: Harris Center, Folsom

Cost: $19-$45

Information: 916-608-6888,