Denver-based harmonica player Clay Kirkland is often described as having the fastest tongue in the West--a compliment based less on his style of speech than his atypical approach to blowing the harp.
"Some harmonica players form an embouchure with their lips," explains Kirkland, a Georgia native and son of a Baptist minister who came to Colorado in 1975. "But when I first started playing, I played it like a horn, because I had played a horn throughout high school. So I put my tongue up there to form the notes. Now, that was back when I used to play [harmonicas] with old wooden combs. And that wood was so rough on the tongue. So when they came out with these Hohner Golden Melodys [with metal reed combs], I really liked how they felt. More than that, I liked the tone."
In fact, Kirkland grew so devoted to the harmonica that he decided against starting a career in either of the fields (psychology and philosophy) in which he holds degrees: Today, he supplements his music by running a house-painting business. His background rears its head, however, when he's talking about his instrument. To him, the harp is a symbol of vitality and sensuality that he's learned to accentuate by applying theories from his practice of yoga and meditation. "I developed some of my techniques by doing various kinds of pranayama [control of life energy through breathing]," he says.
Like Kirkland's idiosyncratic method of playing, his career also defies easy categorization. During the Seventies Kirkland delivered country rock in Gary Morris's band, Breakaway, and classic country while a member of Larry Mahan's Great American Cowboy Band. He subsequently started his own country/rock/ blues band, Powerglide, before shifting directions with the early Eighties reggae group, Mumbo Jumbo. After that act folded, Kirkland blended acoustic ragtime, blues, folk and bluegrass in Hot Pickles, a one-gig experiment that somehow lasted three years. More recently he led the Screamin' Demons, a wild and loud electric-blues outfit. And the Clay Kirkland Band, Kirkland's current unit, is his most eclectic yet. The players--Kirkland, guitarist Dan Soto and various bassists and drummers--convincingly delve into everything from classical music to Indian ragas.
The cover of the group's first CD, Clay-Blues-Rock-Raga-Harmonica, sports a warning label--"Caution: Contains harmonica parts that may be mistaken for other instruments." That's apt, for the music includes six tunes from Kirkland's Screamin' Demons days, as well as five surprisingly innovative acoustic offerings sprinkled with tabla and sitar (performed by two sidemen from Nepal) and flamenco guitar courtesy of Miguel Espinoza. And true to Kirkland's claim, his harmonica often sounds less like a harmonica than, say, a guitar.
"I always wanted to be a guitar player," Kirkland confesses. "But it just wasn't my instrument. I've always listened to violin, and I really loved that, too. But my parents couldn't afford a violin, and the grade school furnished a cello, so I played cello--which I dearly love. But I've always kind of mim-icked guitar, violin and saxophone when I play the harmonica. I almost never listen to harmonica players, and haven't for some time now. I don't consider myself a conventional blues player. I think I can convey the blues feeling, but I don't know that many Little Walter licks. Some guys, they just sound like the old Chicago blues players, and I just don't do that."
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Offering a case in point, Kirkland notes, "I've been doing this thing in concert lately where I start off on stage by myself playing some blues licks, and then I turn it into the melody from the third movement of Brahms's Third Symphony. It's a beautiful melody."
Kirkland feels that the harmonica is finally coming of age. "It's an exciting time for the instrument," he insists. "Sure, it's always been kind of thought of as not a real instrument. But that's changing. I like to think I'm one of several people out there nowadays who are doing things that are making people rethink their opinion of harmonica. There's some amazing things being tried today by just a few. I like to be thought of as somebody working to take it to the next level.
"I still like to play some Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson songs and get in front of a bar crowd at times," he continues. "So it's kind of hard to pin down. What I'm trying to do is find the balance that works, because I like"--his voice drops to a whisper as he draws out his words--"doing it all.