Jon Troutner, aka Harpin’ Jonny, is on a mission: to show that there’s more to playing the harmonica than the blues.
He can rock the blues, but like a small handful of players of the instrument (think the late Toots Thielemans, Blues Traveler frontman John Popper and Flecktones co-founder Howard Levy), Troutner seeks to expand the instrument’s possibilities far beyond the 12-bar tunes.
“I don’t see harmonica as being limited to any type of music,” Troutner says, “and I don’t think it is just a blues instrument. You can play any song on the harmonica.”
His current release, Harpster, proves the point, offering a sensitive reading of the Great American Songbook standard Over The Rainbow. Not exactly a blues tune.
Troutner lists Norton Buffalo as his harmonica hero. Buffalo’s name should be household. Yet it is hardly so, despite a three-decade stint in Steve Miller’s band. His solo on Bonnie Raitt’s 1977 retake of Del Shannon’s classic hit “Runaway” put him on the harp player’s map. In it, he deftly switches between four different harps in order to accommodate the song’s four -hord changes during the classic main verse.
Many blues harpists drill through tunes with little restraint, but Troutner understands that silence can be golden.
“Most harmonica players overplay,” Troutner says. “You’ve gotta learn to listen and play in the right places. Then people will know they can trust you to go in and not wreck the song.”
Not only does he not wreck songs, his tasteful, highly melodic licks are well-timed to embellish the tune’s structure.
Given his range – and patience – Troutner feels increasingly drawn to the jazz idiom.
“I’m playing the chromatic harmonica more and more these days,” he says. “I’m enjoying embellishing songs by creating melodies or adding percussion sounds through the harmonica itself. To make something interesting out of nothing is what I like to do most.”
Harpin’ Jonny appears in Monterey this weekend with longtime guitarist friend Peter Clark, whose intricate and eclectic Chet Atkins-, Doc Watson-, Tommy Emmanuel-style fingerpicking plays right into Troutner’s wheelhouse.
“We’re all over the map – jazz, blues, country, rock, even gypsy jazz,” Troutner says. “We rekindled four or five years ago when Peter retired and he started jonesing to play again after years of being consumed by his job.”
HARPIN’ JONNY and PETER CLARK perform at 6:30pm Saturday, May 5. Caffe Trieste 409 Alvarado St., Monterey. No cover. 241-6064, caffetriestemonterey.com