Playing Between the Half-Tones: Incredibly Innovative Musicianship from Enrico Granafei

For lovers of jazz and the harmonica in particular, Enrico Granafei might be an incarnation of the master Toots Thielemans, but to the next couple of levels. The owner of Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, NJ, Enrico has taught himself to play what sounds like three instruments at once: an astounding, hands-free chromatic harmonica with a guitar that is a blend of regular guitar and bass. Oh, and sing, as well. Hard enough to master any of these on their own, Enrico has explored every corner of musical possibility and made his instruments sing out in joy. Sometimes, headliners at his club ask him to come onstage and join in “On Green Dolphin Street” or some such chestnut. Lucky is he who’s surrounded himself with friends and music.

When did you learn harmonica?

Rather late in life. I was in my late twenties. I had a previous history as a classical guitarist, and had played and concertized in Italy and Germany where I lived for a couple of years. When I heard Toots Thielemans on a Bill Evans record called “Affinity,” it was particularly influential. 

Is harmonica a hard instrument to master? What about the chromatic harmonica?

The main difficulty was due to the fact there was no “tradition” like other instruments have; very few players around the world, zero books.  In Italy, where I grew up, there was only one rather well-known player but I didn’t get to meet him until I was already proficient in harmonica.

The chromatic harmonica is obviously much more complex and therefore difficult. Many people play the diatonic (blues harp) because you only deal with one scale.

It’s inevitable to ask, so: did you ever meet Toots Thielemans or perform with him?

I met him several times. The first time was in Italy during a festival and then in the States when he eventually became my teacher. He was my sole inspiration.

How many harmonicas do you own?

Several, but I only use one at a time. They wear out fast, so you have to buy new ones or have the others fixed, which can be expensive in the long run.

Do you have one instrument you use more than the others?

After using mainly three-octave Hohner harmonicas for decades, now I use Easttop instruments. They’re made in China and they’re excellent. Never fooled around too much with four octaves. I find the lower octave a little too muddy for my taste.

What is the major difference between instruments?

Aside from the obvious difference between diatonic and chromatic, I imagine the type of material used to build a harmonica makes a difference. There is a huge debate about the comb (where the reed plates are mounted) being made of wood, plastic or metal, but to me it does not make a difference.

Why do you think harmonica is suited to jazz?

Jazz lends itself to any instrument. It’s not so much the instrument as the way you use it and the material you play. There are excellent musicians who play jazz on bagpipes or French horn or bassoon.  

With other instruments, you can employ vibrato through fingers on a string, breath control, or squeezing on a reed. How is this accomplished on harmonica?

Vibrato on the harmonica is accomplished in mainly two different ways. One is by cupping the instrument with your hands and moving one of them rapidly like you would do with a trumpet mute (plunger); the other is done with your throat. That’s the one I use. It’s more subtle and less corny.

Who are your favorite jazz artists and composers?

Toots Thielemans, obviously; Gil Evans, Bill Evans and Miles Davis.

When and why did you move to the US?

I came in 1984. Music was the only reason.

A brief history of Trumpets Jazz Club (in Montclair, NJ), and when did you take ownership?

Trumpets opened in the mid-eighties. It was one of the places where I’d perform. At some point it closed down and my wife Kristine decided to re-open it in 1999. It was not my idea.

Have you owned other clubs?

Nope, it was never one of my ambitions, I must say!

What is it like to divide your time between performing and running the club; and which is easier?

Running a club is very hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The only rewarding thing is the sincere gratitude shown by the community, especially musicians, for supporting live music. 

Do you still tour or perform internationally?

I do, and I want to do it more.

What are some of the challenges to getting people in the door?

It’s important to weed out people who don’t care about the music. If we have to suffer, we might as well do it with the right people. I’ve had people write bad reviews ranting and raving about the coffee that was lukewarm. The music? Huh? Hello!!!! What do you think those people on stage are doing? The lukewarm coffee is the only thing you noticed?

What kind of talent do you look for?

This is the best area of the world for music. Finding great musicians is not a problem; there are more good musicians than gigs available. If anything, I feel sorry for the continuous struggle that musicians have to go through.

Anyway, they send us their material and in most cases it’s excellent. I always like to give priority to local musicians. They have a local following, which is very important in this difficult activity.

What country was the most fun to perform in?

Music is a universal language. It’s appreciated everywhere. It’s not so much the country as the people.

Compare the jazz scene in the northeast U.S. to other places you’ve performed in, like Italy, France and Finland.

There is no place like the northeast U.S. for jazz. That’s where this music was born and where all the greatest musicians want to come. A wonderfully thriving scene.

How long do you know Brazilian trumpet player Claudio Roditi? Do you enjoy playing together?

I met him at The Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz festival about 30 years ago. I saw him again in Italy at the Umbria Jazz Festival. He was playing with Paquito d’Rivera who used to have me sit in with the band. I love his playing and I love playing with him also because he always challenges me. 

How often do you join the performers on stage at your club?

I do only when they ask me. Most people know that I’m a musician but some just know me and see me as a club owner.

Future plans for the club?

Selling it when the right time comes.

New CD’s on the horizon?

Working on a new CD right now. There is a tune called Claudinho, dedicated to Claudio, and he plays on it.

What did you like most about creating and recording the CD “Alone and Together”?

The fact that I played with some of the greatest musicians in the world, like Billy Hart, Wallace Roney, Vic Juris and Dave Stryker.

Do you compose and arrange?

Yes I do, I write a lot and I love it, it’s a totally different thing. You can be a great composer without necessarily being a great performer or you can be a great performer who does not write his own music. If you do both, so much the better!

Who’s coming to Trumpets this year (2017)?

We are having Bob DeVos, Vinx (he used to work with Sting), The Lionel Hampton Big Band, Kenny Davis, and Dave Stryker, just to name a few…

Any other special promotions?

Theoretically, the music should promote itself, but it’s still difficult for people to understand that they have to pay a music charge because that’s how we pay the musicians. This is the main reason it’s so hard to have a jazz club. The audience is excellent, but we need more “aficionados.”

Other comments?

I would like to point out that I also play solo in a very unusual setting with the hands-free chromatic harmonica, invented by Vern Smith, and DB guitar at the same time. The DB guitar is a combination of guitar and bass, and was built by Nico Di Battista, an Italian guitarist. This gives the possibility to sound like three people at the same time, something no one has ever done before.

The technique involved is very complex and I had to learn on my own because it’s completely new and nobody could teach me.

I believe that what I am doing with two instruments (that sounds like three), and singing, is extremely revolutionary. Not to brag, but I have been very fortunate to have reviews by highly respected musicians. For example, Bucky Pizzarelli has said, “For many years I have appreciated Enrico both as a classical guitarist and a jazz harmonica player, but what he does playing the two instruments at the same time is absolutely amazing.”

Another review: “How do you manage to play the harmonica, accompany yourself on the guitar at the same time and do incredible singing on top of it?” — Horace Ott, Record Producer, Arranger, Conductor, Composer, Pianist (YMCA; Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood) 

And one more: “You would think you are dreaming! With an incredible virtuosity Enrico Granafei plays harmonica (a model conceived by Vern Smith) and classical guitar simultaneously allowing himself the luxury of singing occasionally (tasty scatting on You’d be So Nice To Come Home To). Here is an overly talented musician whose musicality and richness of inspiration are truly out of the ordinary. An accomplished guitarist with elegant phrasing and impeccable technique, Enrico Granafei absolutely deserves the admiration of his fellow musicians like Stanley Jordan, Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini. He’s also a harmonica virtuoso whose creativity reminds us of the famous Toots Thielemans of whom he was a student. On this CD, he offers real personal renditions of American and Brazilian standards, among which I’d like to mention Out of Nowhere where his guitar accompaniment (chords and bass lines) is amazing both in terms of technique and inspiration, and also Wave where he sublimates the melody. Absolutely astonishing all the way.” — Claude Oberg (Jazz Magazine)

© Debbie Burke 2017

Photo courtesy of the subject

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