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Paul LEWIS (b.1943)
Serenade and Dance: The Romantic Harmonica Music of Paul Lewis

The Secret World of Polly Flint [4:15]
Woof! Fantasy [4:38]
Two Miniatures: Loves [2:09]; Lark [1.03]
Impromptu for Harmonica and Harp [5:03]
Spring Suite: Jaunt [3:10]; Romance [2.36]; Jig [2:40].
Tea for Three [2:15]
Pavane [4:35]
Seal Morning [3:08]
Serenata [11.2]
A Somerset Garland [12:08]: Bridgwater Shanty [2:27]; Martock Jig [2:35]; Muchelney Ham Lament [2:35]; Huish Episcopi Sarabande [2:48]; Langport March [2:33].
Norfolk Rhapsody [8:43]
Serenade and Dance [3:30]
The Benny Hill Waltz [2:16]
James Hughes, harmonica
Elizabeth Jane Baldry, harp
Dana Preece, piano
The Delamere String Quartet (James Davis and Arnold Goodger, violins; Nicola Akeloyd, viola; Sylvia Knussen, cello)
Pail Lewis, wind chimes and "musical director"
Rec. The Old Bakehouse, Honiton, Devon, and St. Andrews Church, Charmouth, Dorset, June 30th, July  1st and 24th, 1997
CAMPION CAMEO 2024 [74:58]

 

Like the bagpipes, the harmonica is an instrument about which music-lover tends to have extreme feelings. There are those who cover their ears and run screaming from the room ... and there are those who feel a warm and sympathetic glow in their hearts when they hear its homely, intensely personal, slightly plaintive song upon the wind. If Charlie Chaplinís "Little Tramp" had been musically inclined, I think he would have carried a harmonica in his pocket ...

Of course, Iím not describing one of those cheap dime-store toys that produce tones so tinny and grating theyíll fry your earwax. Iím thinking about a well-crafted, skilfully-tuned instrument that fully deserves the appellation "mouth organ", an expressive, metal-reed instrument capable of rich chromatic effects and considerable dynamic range. A "symphonic" harmonica, as it were.

I first got turned-on to these instruments when I chanced upon an album entitled "Harmonica Rhapsody", by Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats, issued by Columbia in the early Sixties. I picked it up for a pittance in a cut-out bin Ė expecting something schlocky and Lawrence Welkian. I was amazed at the trioís energetic, virtuosic renditions of the Danse Macabre, the Polovtsian Dances and a transcription of "Anitraís Dance" from the Peer Gynt Suite that was, all things considered, every bit as haunting and soulful as the orchestral version. The LP quickly became on of my favorite "classical party records". Whenever I had a fellow classical buff over for a listening session, I derived considerable glee from putting the record on un-announced, cranking up the volume, and watching his jaw drop at the first crunchy, room-shaking blast of Lisztís Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. As I recall, however, very few visitors asked to hear the entire albumÖ

Whatís the appeal of the harmonica (for those of us not allergic to the instrumentís basic sound)? Well, for me, itís the chordal richness, the poignancy of its legatos, the firecracker snap of its staccatos, and the possibilities it affords for highly personal phrasing ... plus the fact that I can tuck one in my backpack and mindlessly improvise whilst communing with nature on the banks of a beautiful little river that flows next to my favorite camping site in the Virginia mountains. Iím strictly a rank amateur (read: hopelessly inept), but thereís nobody around to complain, and the squirrels, woodpeckers, and ground hogs donít seem to mind my aleatoric bleats, blats, and atonal melodic noodling.

"Serious" harmonica players have been few, but all were stellar showmen: Larry Adler, John Sebastian, Tommy Reilly, Jerry Murad, andÖumÖ.erÖ Well, anyway, you can certainly add James Hughes to the list. His technique is dazzling, his intonation is laser-beam accurate, and his expressive range is equal to the maximum his chosen instrument is capable of delivering. I would certainly love to hear him cut loose on the concertos by Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob, Villa-Lobos and Alan Hovhaness.

Until he records those concert-hall works, however, we can enjoy this grab-bag recital of compositions and arrangements by Paul Lewis, a TV composer with an impressive list of credits on his resumé: Lady Killers, Arthur of the Britons, The Prisoner of Zenda and the immensely popular childrenís show Woof! According to the program notes, Mr. Lewis is gravitating toward more ambitious concert works, but heís evidently doing so cautiously, because the most substantive work in this collection, is the 11:22 Serenata..

As for the contents as a whole ... let me take a deep breath before trying to prioritize the 20 bands on this generously-filled CD. The producers seem to have chosen what-goes-where by one of three methods: 1) drawing numbers out of a hat; 2) throwing darts, blindfolded, at a wall full of scores; or, 3) applying a John-Cage-ian strategy of casting the I-Ching.

Boldly imposing order on randomness, let me deal first with the Serenata, for harmonica and harp. No date is given for the piece, but it was written for the redoubtable Tommy Reilly and harpist Skaila Kanga. In form, itís a relaxed A-B-A kind-of rhapsody, comprising a lively zingara (Yeah, I had to look it up, too), framed by a pair of andantes.

The music is lushly, if generically, romantic, thoroughly enjoyable, and five minutes after youíve heard it you cannot remember a single minute of it.

A Shropshire Garland (12 minutes and change) offers more variety in its five movements (insofar as hay-nonnie-nonnie folk tunes can). The material derives from Cecil Sharpeís landmark World-War-One-era compilation of Somerset folk songs. I adore this kind of music, but I couldnít suppress an occasional giggle at the Monty-Python-esque place names ("Regimental March of the Yeoman from Upshot-on-the-Downswing" kind of thing). Clueless Yank that I am, I canít quite visualize the distinctive characteristics of a "Muchelney Ham", not can I imagine why such a creature would have cause to "lament" (Well, maybe at the end of its bucolic lifeÖ).

Mr. Lewis is a prolific works-for-a-living composer (I applaud him; Iím the same kind of writer and itís a gruelling way to earn your keep!), so several cuts on the disc are derived from commercial gigs. Thereís the signature theme from The Secret World of Polly Flint (a series that didnít make it to this side of the Pond), three minutesí worth of the music from Seal Morning (which if memory serves did get shown over here but probably didnít export very well; Mr. Lewis describes it as "haunting", and Iíll be generous enough to grant him that adjective, but just reading the saccharine synopsis drilled several new cavities in my teeth). On the other hand, The Benny Hill Waltz tickled the hell out of me. Yes, the sledgehammer "wit", whoopee-cushion gags, and the uncountable Big Boob skits were geared to the sensibilities of a randy 13-year-old, but for some reason I enjoyed the show hugely (a confession that tells you more about me than I ought to reveal). Sorry to expend so many words on a 2:16 snippet, but Mr. Lewisís slightly daft score really does, um, rise to the occasion.

And so it goes throughout the entire program: from music to accompany a "Little Whiskas" cat food commercial to sincerely felt arrangements of hauntingly evocative traditional ballads, the juxtapositions are surreal, almost Ivesian. But against all logic, the program somehow works. You certainly wonít listen to this stuff with the rapt concentration youíd devote to a Bruckner adagio but itís a dandy background CD to slap on while youíre brewing the morning coffee (Okay, TEA!), frying some bacon, or waiting for that handful of aspirin to moderate last nightís hangover. It is what it is, and you donít have to sit in front of your speakers with furrowed brow to appreciate Mr. Lewisís talent. The music is unpretentious, never less than skilfully written, and deserves a modest place in the grand tradition of British "Light Music".

William R. Trotter



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