In 1993 I went to Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins West Virginia. I had recently turned 40 and in a kind of mid-life crisis I was trying to learn Blues Harp. I could play a clear single note most of the time, but I couldn't really bend consistently. I was joined there by a bunch of new harp players. Kevin McGowan who was selling a couple of dozen harps a month through his newly launched mail order service: "Kevin's Harps" was there. "Smokey Gibson" who has since been rocking at the biker bars throughout the south was in my classes. A long-haired kid named Dennis Gruenling from New Jersey also joined me in Phil Wiggins' and Charlie Sayles' beginners classes.
Dennis was damn good. He seemed to soak up talent from those around him and he was a heck of a nice guy. He tried to help me out. At the time my harp playing had much in common with the sound a dying cow makes, and even Dennis was no help.
I didn't hear anything about Dennis until a couple of years ago. It seems he was woodshedding, learning his craft. He dedicated himself to learning the harp and not just copying sounds, but seeking for a sound all his own. He seems to have absorbed the style of William Clarke and George Smith, blending it with Little Walter and Sonny Boy II. What makes him unique is adding more than a touch of Artie Shaw, Harry James and Miles Davis.
Dennis today is cool combination of real Jump Blues, Swing and cool Chicago flavored standards.
Last Friday night, I heard Dennis live for the first time in almost 9 years at the Turning Point in Piermont, NY.
The show opened with Chris "V" Vitarello on guitar. Chris has had his own band for years and has played with Gary 'Drums' Schwartz as a "Blue Ray" at the Tap House Jam up in Bedford Hills as well as backing Roxy Perry. I've jammed with Chris a few times and it was a real pleasure to see this Premier Bluesman supplying the backbone to such a tight group of virtuoso players.
Chris is a great blues singer as well, but was soon supplemented by the Sexy Gina Fox on vocals. Gina has great stage presence and filled up the Turning Point with the warm sultry spice of her singing. She controlled the horizontal; she controlled the vertical. Watch out for Gina. It won't be long before some record company gets her to sign on the dotted line.
Backed by the great rhythm section of Dave Rodriguez on Bass and Joe Bellia on Drums and the killer saxophone player Doug Sasfai, this band rocked the night away.
Dennis played jump style chromatic in third position for a couple of songs. His playing is just perfect. He, unlike other blues chromatic stylists, was not at all afraid of "the button" and added rich counterpoint to the saxophone as well as cool intricate solos. When not playing lead he chugged away at rhythm adding a cool bottom to the music, something I like to think he learned from Charlie Sayles at blues week all those years ago. This alone proves to me that Dennis really cares about the music and is willing to be a part of the ensemble and not just a flashy lead.
Of course, flashy lead is a good way to describe Dennis. He still has the long hair which combined with the slick sharkskin suit is a memorable, if outré, look. His playing style is clean, clear and cool. He plays, if anything, a little too perfect. Dennis Gruenling's music is designed for comfort as well as speed.
There was none of the debate you often see in blues bands. No negotiations about the song the rhythm or the key. Each song, either 'jump blues' in third position or remarkably tasty Chicago or Delta style in second position, started and ended without a hitch. The band is well practiced and knew what they were about.
My only criticism was that the band was too well practiced and a little too set. In each song, Dennis had a moment where you felt him stretching, trying the edges of his performance, but he was always in control and always knew where he was going. I wish he had crossed the line, made a mistake or found a new sound. I wanted him to have a drink and loosen up. I wanted to hear him break loose, stumble and make a great recovery. I know he can do it. His performance was tantalizing, but I wanted more. I'd like to hear Dennis at a jam or a less formal venue. I can listen to his CD's at home, but when I go out I want to hear something that's not on the CD.
I am convinced that Dennis Gruenling is one of the best harp players around. Technically he is flawless. Musically he is right in the pocket. He plays the blues that I want to listen to. I am going out (as soon as I have a job) and buy all of his CDs and I would recommend that everyone who reads this do the same.
Learn more about Dennis Gruenling and buy his CDs at his website: http://www.backbender.net/