STORY by MAX TAPOGNA
PHOTOGRAPHS by JOE CANTRELL
Harmonicist Joe Powers is a consummate showman. Appearing in a red velvet jacket with a matching Santa hat, Powers stylishly huffed and puffed his way through A Very Harmonica Christmas, the holiday offering that played December 21st at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church. The concert stretched across genres, including tango, blues, and classical, although jazz was the common denominator. Powers assembled an eclectic band for the evening: accordionist Courtney Von Drehle and the incredible Masumi Timson on koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, were especially memorable.
The concert started on an upbeat, with Dan Gaynor vamping on piano. The audience was already clapping along before Powers ran onstage. He joined the band with an impish grin, procuring an oversized chromatic harmonica from his breast pocket like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Powers then launched into a galloping “Jingle Bells Bossa,” dancing up and down the aisle, hunched over and occasionally blowing tunes in the faces of the crowd.
Let’s get one thing clear: in Powers’ hands—or lips, rather—the harmonica is just as much a leading instrument as a saxophone or trumpet, capable of producing magical sounds of surprising complexity. Powers’ interpretations of Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turka” and Chopin’s mercurial “Minute Waltz” were designed to impress–drummer Ji Tanzer even wished Powers good luck for the Chopin. Although the dizzying, classical runs were deftly played, it was during the freer jazz standards that Powers and his band really thrived.
A solo Coventry carol, which Powers played by sandwiching two diatonic harmonicas against the microphone, transitioned into a jammin’ rendition of Ben Tucker and Bob Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby.” Powers initiated a call and response with Gaynor, leaning into the agape lid of the piano, then showed off his singing chops with the Mexican bolero “Solamente una vez” by Augustín Lara. Although Powers faltered on the Spanish lyrics, he quickly recovered, and returned to safe territory by extending the vocal line on harmonica.
The holiday cheer continued with a version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that played fast and loose with the carol’s haunting melody. Other Christmas favorites featured Powers beatboxing “Deck the Halls” into his harmonica and, later, the band’s rollicking medley of the carol “We Three Kings” fused to Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” The band seemed to become one seamless instrument on the Brazilian number “Carinhoso,” during which the melody passed between Powers and Von Drehle imperceptibly.
Two duets for harmonica and koto were concert highlights. Powers pointed out that the koto is usually accompanied by a bamboo flute, but the mouth organ worked just as well. In the duets with Timson, Powers showcased the harmonica’s iconic sounds that recall the scores of spaghetti westerns. The duo’s version of “Sara No Hana” by Shingo Ikegami was beautiful and nostalgic, evoking the white-petaled stewartia flowers from which the song gets its name.
Timson later returned for the concert finale: “Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla. Tango is one of Powers’ specialties, but it was Timson who kicked off the piece, playing repeated broken chords with such intensity that one of her several finger picks went flying into the audience. This had no effect on the music, and the tango was astounding.
The concert wrapped with the whole ensemble playing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” an encore that included some endearingly awkward dancing between Powers and the soprano Phoebe MacRae, who earlier had sung a contemplative rendition of Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Amidst applause, Powers returned the gratitude to the audience. He had performed the concert once before in 2019, he said, with the goal of making it an annual event. That didn’t happen for obvious reasons, but he was intent on manifesting a sequel.
“See you next year!” he waved to the dispersing crowd, and slipped his harmonica back into his pocket.