The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Mike Turk is a Boston-based chromatic and diatonic harmonica player who has released six critically-acclaimed albums as well as having had an active studio career. Highlights of his session work include recording with Jerry Lee Lewis, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sharon Robinson, and the scores to John Sayle’s Honeydripper and Lone Star. More at www.MikeTurk.com.
I first became familiar with Mike Turk’s music through his record, Harmonica Salad. I was astounded by the scope of his playing: fiery blues-based diatonic harmonica, featuring tasteful use of overbends and a harmonic awareness not often associated with the blues tradition, paired with some of the most nuanced bebop-based chromatic harmonica I’d ever heard. From that point on, Mike’s playing became the benchmark against which I measured my own versatility and command of both the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. Over the years, we’ve become friends, and my appreciation for his musicianship has only increased as I’ve come to understand his focused, patient, and uncompromising approach to his craft. I was honored that Mike agreed to this interview and found his insight into both his work as a studio musician and solo artist a trove of harmonica wisdom.
RG: Who would you consider the “Gold Standards” for studio harmonica?
MT: It’s a tough question because my years of being an active player straddles an old era into the new era and I’m highly influenced by the old stuff.
Actually, I became aware of and grew to appreciate the older stuff more as I got older as opposed to embracing the newer things that came along. So trying to define the “Gold Standard” for me goes back the 50’s and 60’s with guys who established themselves as studio players because they were literate musicians, great sight readers. They were practiced musicians who had a certain sort of conservatory; they practiced classical pieces, exercises, and had a certain discipline. Guys like Tommy Morgan in LA, and in New York there were some good players like Blackie Schackner, Charlie Leighton and after a while Cham-ber Huang. Of course the guy who was always the first call: Toots Thielemans.
Contrary to the many players who were legitimate or "legit", or who came out of the harmonica bands, cruise ship circuits and were also very competent, Toots Thielemans came from a complete jazz "conservatory." He had a completely different kind of musical fluency and so my “Gold Standard” moves to what he established in the late 50’s and 60’s. At that time in NYC, I think he made most of his "bread" being a commercial harmonica player and would do jazz gigs to fill the time. He had come off the road with George Shearing and for a period of time he was doing weddings and bar mitzvahs and was the first call studio harmonica player. People aren’t generally aware of this period in his career. He even picked up the diatonic. Of course he was also a whistler and guitarist, which helped.
For the most part, I just tried to follow what Toots did. Once, I got to watch Toots record for Quincy Jones’s The Wiz which gave me something to aspire to: to watch Toots as part of an amazing entourage of musicians who just walk into the studio, don’t sweat it, look at the music, no matter how easy or complicated and know exactly what the music requires, and do it in one or two takes.
And of course there was Charlie McCoy and he was a very clean, “Gold Standard” example of a great diatonic player. He had an amazing technique, clean sound, and was very melodic.
RG: How did your early studio sessions come about, and what were some typical situations you found yourself in?
MT: I cut my teeth playing with "Papa" John Kolstad in the early 70's in the folk duo genre and a few other bluegrass/jazzy players who were into the Django thing for example. After that, I hooked up with a country western band here in New England, John Lincoln Wright & The Sour Mash Boys, which was when I began to concentrate on a cleaner sound and playing specific parts; this was necessary with the full band.
After a while of that, I went to Berklee College of Music because I realized I needed to learn to read, about music theory, arranging, and all of that. Coming out of my years in Berklee, I knew I could put my own groups together and perform but I needed other ways of making money and that was in the burgeoning studio world that existed in New York City and throughout New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Boston, Connecticut, etc). I’d end up driving all over the place and getting work that way. I had to hone my ability at being comfortable sitting down with music I’d never seen before and giving those producers what they wanted.
In order to break into this scene, I put together a demo reel and bio and sent it out to hundreds of studios. I was a pretty persistent telephone caller in those days (around 1980) and I’d sometimes get a very favorable response and they’d call me for sessions. It was tough and I had a lot of competition.
Getting back to the “Gold Standard,” by 1980 in New York City it was Donnie Brooks on diatonic harmonica. Toots was getting out of the studio scene as he began touring internationally and Robert Bonfiglio, who was then and is now an extremely disciplined classical player, ended up getting a lot of the work. I was trying to hone in on these guy's business as an upstart new kid in the neighborhood. I wound up doing a bunch of things there but eventually got tired of it and went back to Boston. I became frustrated that I never got on the big commercial spots that hit big money and I had to re-evaluate things for that.
RG: Can you talk about the skills that you found useful and important in the studio?
MT: I was always uptight walking into a studio session. I was never confident as a "sight reader" and that was something that I had to concentrate on getting better at. However, I always wanted to play chromatic harmonica. In my approach to getting my foot in the door, I’d always push that I was a chromatic harmonica player and jazz guy who could make my style work on anything, and I’d try to get in that way. I wanted to play or improvise freely on the sessions and I wanted the writers to recognize that ability in me. But, it wasn’t always that way. I’d come in and they’d have exactly what they wanted me to play on paper, some pastoral piece with a small string section for a Monsanto commercial or I’d have to play blues harp on a Stetson Cologne commercial with specific markings on where the harp was supposed to come in (check out Mike’s record, The Mouth that Roared, for some examples of his commercial work from this period). These were called "30's or 60's with a possible 20" which referred to how many seconds the spot was and if there would be 20 minutes of "overtime" to be paid for. The most important thing wasn’t how much one practiced, but can you give them what they’re looking for, the image they had of the harmonica in their mind, otherwise known as "schtick."
It's funny, in those years in NYC, the microphone of choice in the commercial studios was a weird, square piezo-electric pick-up mic that was actually clipped to the music stand and picked up the harp vibrations....a curious technology; however, it really sounded like shit!
RG: What were the characteristics of Donnie Brooks and Robert Bonfiglio that lead them to dominate the New York studio work in that post-Toots era?
MT: Bonfiglio was a master sight reader. Everyone I ever talked to said that he could read anything in any key. Donnie Brooks had established a way of playing and presenting the diatonic harmonica as a very clean voice, so that above and beyond the commercial world, he wound up consulting to Roger Miller and contributing to the “Big River” (the musical) harmonica book which plays a crucial role in the overall score.
I guess he established a way of notating for the diatonic harmonica. Though he tragically passed away just a few years after “Big River”, he had pretty much established a “Gold Standard” for diatonic harmonica that even carries back to Nashville .
RG: After you transitioned out of the studio world and into a solo career, you made a series of very influential records. Let’s talk about how you’ve approached your recordings and how you went about capturing your best sound from a technical standpoint.
MT: When I first began to record, especially the sessions for Harmonica Salad, I didn’t really know how to get the sound I was looking for and was at the mercy of the engineers. I’d listen back and I didn’t know how to explain to them that “it’s just not fat enough”, or “I need more reverb”, or “I don’t like the color the harmonica has’” terms like that are very vague and I didn’t know how to express myself technically. After a while it dawned on me that even though I didn’t know much about moving the dials I knew enough about what I needed to hear. I began to learn about the importance of microphone placement and equalization and to make sure the sound was to my liking.
RG: Your sound on the chromatic is one of my all-time favorites, can you talk, playing technique and musicianship aside, how you’ve approached capturing that sound.
MT: I was and am still very envious of saxophone and trumpet players ( i.e. Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown) because their sound basically incorporates their reed, mouthpiece, horn, and embouchure. Now because of it's comparatively low volume projection, harmonica is always at the mercy of the environment and you’re really going to lose if you don’t pay attention to how you’re going to microphone and amplify yourself.
In a studio situation, it is practically the same thing though you can control it more. The most important thing is getting a good signal and sound into the microphone. I’m an avid appreciator of Toots Theilemans and he probably has the biggest sound of any harmonica player who ever recorded, so I pretty much tried to copy that tone which is natural for many chromatic players. If you listen to The Amazing Sound of Toots Theilemans (Columbia Records), you can actually hear that they’re using very sensitive Neumann mics at a very close proximity, probably with a windscreen. Those engineers really knew their shit and how to make the harmonica sound full, round, and with a great presence within the stereophonic sound field. I think this is how he recorded for a long time.
As time went on, like, in the 70’s or 80’s I began to realize that he was using an ordinary old Shure microphone, like the SM-58, and hand holding it, so I followed and adapted that later on.
So, on Harmonica Salad, except for the amplified blues harp tracks, the harmonicas were recorded with a pair of AKG 414’s at close proximity which gave a really good signal. (Mike commented that he was about 6 inches from the 414s and that they were spaced about 1 foot apart.) We did the same thing on Turk’s Works. Of course the engineers like to use a room mic and all of this would get mixed together with the mic channels. We recorded live but with total isolation. Once we got a good full signal, I was adamant about the tone I wanted to get in the mixing session.
After a while in the 90's, I met these guys who had recorded Toots in Italy (Libens’ Ozio on Via Veneto Jazz, 1994). Toots had told them he wanted to use an old hand microphone that he had brought with him. This was a revelation to me because he needed to make sure they got his sound correctly. This was a great relief because I don’t want to mess around with how engineers "think" harmonica should be recorded.
When we did The Italian Job, we used an overhead microphone and I used my own hand held microphone that I perform with on stage, the PVM45. The thing I like about the 45 is that it has a characteristic in its frequency roll off and tone that I thought was a perfect mate for the Renaissance harmonica. Now, I don’t have to worry about whether an engineer knows how to record harmonica or not.
There have been collaboration where an engineer has put some thought into how to record the harmonica, so I’ll listen to the guy. For example, The Nature Of Things was recorded with 2 very rare 1948 Neumanns and a contact on the harmonica but, the 45 is an insurance policy as many engineers don’t have much experience recording harmonica.
For the most part I used Hard Boppers and Mellow Tone harmonicas, because of the deep tone they had. They were what’s referred to as long slot reed instruments with thicker reed plates and they had a much fuller sound than the normal 270’s. I’ve experimented with other harmonicas like 270’s tuned in G or F, or one of the early Huangs, which were made pretty good at that time. It was like that for me until I met Douglas Tate in 1998 and he gave me the Renaissance to borrow for 6 months, and that’s when things changed forever. I've played this one harmonica for 15 years now and do all my own reed repairs and tuning.
I just use my ear when I mix... you have to be patient! It’s like cooking; you season to taste, then you make sure that it has the characteristics you liked at the studio on different speaker systems and different rooms.
RG: Which of your records are you most satisfied with the sound?
MT: The Italian Job, it's self-arranged, directed, mixed and mastered.
RG: Any closing comments?
MT: I’ve chosen the direction I’ve gone in, which is to be a singular personality on the instrument. However far that’s gotten me is yet another discussion, but I’m happy and satisfied with the path I’ve chosen in that regard. It identifies me and it’s why I got away from blues harp and being a guy who will play all styles. Sometimes, there are "moments" where I play something new, a phrase or passage that I’ve never done before and it’s very satisfying.
To me, being unique means you’re doing something on a higher level than what’s been done before. I don’t want to hear new recordings with people attempting to imitate or sound like something that was already done 60 years ago without putting something new on it!