We don’t write about a whole lot of all-instrumental albums here, but harmonica player Mark Hummel‘s latest release Harpbreaker (Electro-Fi Records) is one that’s really too good to let pass without mention. A mix of newly recorded, live, previously issued and a good number of unreleased tracks chosen by Hummel, the album includes a baker’s dozen of tunes ranging from such classics as “See See Rider”, “Cristo Redentor” and “The Creeper Returns” to originals like the swinging opener “Harpoventilatin'” from a 2005 show at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California; a spunky, washboard and percussion-accented “Billy’s Boogaloo” recorded just this year; and the jazzy, swaying “Ready, Steady, Stroll!” from 2009’s RetroActive sessions.
Because the tracks come from a number of different sessions that took place during the past decade and a half, Harpbreaker features a rotating cast of supporting musicians on guitar, keyboards, drums and horns in addition to, and sometimes in place of, Hummel’s regular band members R.W. Grigsby on bass and Wes Starr on drums. On guitar, those guests include such well-known players as Anson Funderburgh, Little Charlie Baty, Kid Andersen, Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn, with keyboardists Bob Welsh and Mel Brown and drummer Marty Dodson among the other contributing musicians. That variety of players, along with some superb song selection, help make the tracks all different enough not only to keep things interesting but make Harpbreaker one of the best instrumental albums we’ve heard in some time, and, indeed, one of the best albums of 2018.
Early in the program, Hummel’s 2006 version of Little Sonny’s “The Creeper Returns” may be one of most passionate takes we’ve ever heard on the song, while the slow, wailing “Cristo Redentor” (Duke Pearson) serves as another good example of how expressive a sound Hummel can draw from his instrument, joined by Andersen on guitar. Along the way, there’s also the shuffling “Walkin’ with Mr. Lee” and a grooving “Crazy Legs” (Little Walter) that itself makes for quite a wild ride, off the Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue and The Hustle is Really On albums, respectively, with the former featuring both Funderburgh and Baty on guitar and Baty again on the latter.
Also quite good are a jazzy “Senor Blues” that includes Zinn on guitar and a few members of the California Honeydrops on horns and a stripped-down, tender closing “See See Rider” that finds Hummel joined only by Zinn on guitar, with covers of Muddy Waters (“Evans Shuffle”) and Buddy Rich (“Rotten Kid – Live”) numbers helping to round out the collection.
Whether you’re checking Hummel’s music out for the first time or a longtime fan, Harpbreaker is a terrific assortment of Hummel’s work from recent years, and one you’re definitely going to want to add to your collection!