As Bob Kessler figures it, there will never be enough harmonicas in his collection. “You always have four fewer than you want,” he tells me.
Currently, the harmonica player has about ten to 15 that he uses regularly—and many others that are stripped and in pieces. His most peculiar specimen? The Hohner 264 Bass Harmonica, a harp the “size of a large sandwich” that Kessler compares to the sound of a tuba (it also has some didgeridoo low-end sonic elements, if you ask me). As a reference, the instrument makes appearances in both the Sanford and Son theme song and on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
A $180 eBay purchase in 2012, the harmonica saw its first action when Kessler was hired to perform as part of The Grapes of Wrath opera (scored by Ricky Ian Gordon) at Northwestern in early 2013.
“Cosmetically, it’s not in great shape. But I took it apart and cleaned it, and the reeds are nice,” he says. “The Windy City Harmonica Club told me it’s from the 50s.”
Kessler, who during his 20-plus years of playing has been tutored by blues harp powerhouses Corky Siegel and Howard Levy, is a member of roots band the Black Willoughbys (presently on hiatus) and a solo performer. He’s recently taken an interest in experimenting with looping: stacking the play of one harmonica upon another until it creates a swirling mass of sound. He worked out a solo interpretation of Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” at last year’s Hideout Harmonica Hoedown, bass harmonica included, and is releasing an EP at this year’s edition (Sun 2/16, 7 PM).
And don’t think for a second that playing harmonica is as simple as blowing some hot air. “It’s like playing piano blindfolded with one finger,” Kessler explains.
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