Pocket Full of Soul Draws Enthusiastic Crowd to New Haven Premiere
by Holley Dey and Louise Uznanski. Photos and video by Richard Uznanski and Louise Uznanski for OnTapBlog.
© 2013 OnTapBlog All Rights Reserved.
Last Thursday we went downtown to get the low-down. The movie was screened one night only at select theaters across the country, and thanks to the support of many in New Haven, we were there to enjoy the premiere of Pocket Full of Soul: The Harmonica Documentary.
The movie had been billed as a concert and a history lesson rolled into one. It’s true! From beginning to end, Pocket Full of Soul was both entertaining and educational. There was music. There was humor. There were people, musicians who coaxed a symphony of sound, an encyclopedia of emotion from the humble harmonica. From legendary blues harp players like Little Walter, James Cotton and Magic Dick, to newcomers Jason Ricci and hip hop artist Bad News Brown, we were offered a broad perspective on the harmonica (r)evolution.
We learned from an earnest John Popper that a precursor to the harmonica was made in China long before the modern day instrument was mass produced in Germany. We learned about harmonica construction and performance technique, visited with Matthias Hohner’s grandson in the factory town of Trossingen. We learned about reeds and plates, to blow and draw, breathe the music.
Through new performance clips and archival footage, we saw the harmonica played across music genres by players whose unique tone and delivery brought new dimensions to the sound. We learned that Little Walter played only a few notes, but that each of those notes was remarkably full and satisfying. We heard from Howard Levy and Jason Ricci, modern day players with an individual, recognizable technique. So many former and current master players were represented first through interview and then in live performance, each with the passion in their eyes and beads of sweat on their brows.
We learned about respect. A deadpan Jerry Portnoy drew spontaneous laughter when he opened the film by describing the typical reaction encountered when people realize he plays harmonica for a living. Silence. After all, “you’re not a real musician.” We watched as a timeline was described, from the early 20th century when harmonica players were excluded from the musicians’ union, to the accidental, chart topping success of B side track “Peg O’ My Heart” by Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats, to the use of harmonica across a spectrum of music styles. Riding a continuous sine wave of popularity, the harmonica is due for a resurgence!
Well known names and faces populate the film. Johnny Cash plays a compelling “Orange Blossom Special” in black and white archival footage. Charlie Musselwhite’s appearance drew cheers from the New Haven audience; Charlie emphasizes the expression of emotion through the harmonica during his interview. American Idol winner Taylor Hicks describes the harmonica as a “little sword”, with a sound that cuts from the living room to the kitchen, then proceeds to demonstrate just what he means. Not all the famous names belong to musicians. Astronaut Wally Schirra carried a harmonica on his Gemini mission into space. Abraham Lincoln was a presidential player.
There are so many names, faces and details, so much pulse raising music shared in rapid succession that eighty-two minutes pass quickly, and at least a second viewing would be needed to fully appreciate all that Pocket Full of Soul has to offer. Here’s hoping that the film will soon enjoy a wider, and worldwide distribution, starting right here!
After the New Haven screening, the audience graciously agreed to participate in a poll. From four simple questions, we learned the following about the audience and their take on Pocket Full of Soul. While the majority who attended were blues lovers, or as one respondent wrote “blooze” lovers, a significant number of the audience preferred rock as a music genre. Smaller, but important numbers of attendees were fans of country music or jazz, and a single audience member held out hope for a jug band!
On Thursday evening, 73% were not harmonica players, although one audience member shared with a smile, “not now…” A full 92% of those polled were ready to pick up a harmonica and play after watching Pocket Full of Soul. Of those who resisted the urge, one said modestly, “I have no rhythm.” When asked whether Pocket Full of Soul: The Harmonica Documentary would appeal to a general audience of movie goers, the crowd shouted “Yes!”, and 94% replied in the affirmative on written response cards.
A beginner’s harmonica lesson and jam followed, and were led by musician Mark Zaretsky. Mark has been the lead vocalist and harmonica player for The Cobalt Rhythm Kings for the past sixteen years. One of Connecticut’s leading blues bands, The Cobalt Rhythm Kings were winners of the 2010 New Haven Advocate Grand Band Slam for “Best Blues Band”.
Mark is also an experienced harmonica teacher, although the students in his classes generally number fewer than one hundred! Nonetheless, the professor managed the class well, instructing the audience first how to hold the harmonica, then how to play chords and single notes. More ambitious students were challenged to “bend” notes, while novices like ourselves happily, if randomly, made sweet music by breathing through brightly colored Hohner harmonicas in the key of C.
Several well known local area musicians were in attendance. Among those spotted were Peter Rost of River City Slim, The Zydeco Hogs and The Mighty Soul Drivers, jazz harp player Chris DePino, Ryan Hartt of Ryan Hartt and the Blue Hearts, musician Edward “Thirsty” Hurston, Andy Weinstein of The Rising Tide Band, and Matt Rhone of Grit Rhythm Zero. A few musicians and students joined Mark for a brief harmonica jam at the front of the theater as the evening ended.
We all left with a heart full of music and a pocket full of soul!
Mark Warms Up the Audience
Group Jam after the lesson