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The Book of Blues

Playing along with harmonica great Steve Cohen

Dec. 7, 2011
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A simple instrument anyone can pick up and play, the harmonica can also be tremendously powerful and emotionally expressive. Nowhere is that more true than in the blues, where virtuoso harmonica players have long shared the spotlight with guitarists. Milwaukee has nurtured at least two homegrown blues harmonica greats, Steve Cohen and Jim Liban. In recent years, while maintaining their own bands, they have often played together.

Of the two, Cohen has stayed more in the public eye. He has been endorsed by Hohner Harmonicas and has performed on the CDs accompanying nearly a dozen harmonica "play-along books" for music publishing giant Hal Leonard. Cohen's latest project for Hal Leonard, the book-CD combo 101 Harmonica Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use, has just been released. Cohen's text walks the beginner through the instrument in an easy-to-follow set of instructions. The CD includes selections with and without harmonica, allowing the beginner to hear Cohen's playing and then recreate it against backing tracks. Not surprisingly, an echo of the blues can be heard.

"Blues is at the base of what I do," Cohen explains. "But I've always been interested in other music, and that interest has caused me to learn new techniques. This has always been true for harmonica players. No one played like Little Walter before him, and he was influenced by Louis Jordan, Lester Young and the jazz saxophone players of his era."

Although Cohen has built a side career in music instruction guides, he is still primarily known as a performer from a career stretching back to his high-school days in the late '60s. As a teenager, his friend's parents drove him to Milwaukee's East Side to hear Jim Liban, one of the city's first white blues musicians. Since 1990, the two men have often played together in a variety of settings. This weekend, they will perform as a trio with multi-instrumentalist Lil' Rev, who received a few harmonica lessons from Cohen at the start of his career.

"We're almost like an old-time string band when we play together," Cohen says. "Jim and I play guitar on a few numbers, as well as harmonica, and Rev moves between mandolin, guitar, harmonica and ukulele. Jim and I will play some of our songs and blues standards. Rev has a background in old Americana. We don't rehearse. We'll lay out a few chord changes onstage and say, '1-2-3, let's go!' It's a lot of spontaneity. We don't know what we'll play until we get there."

Steve Cohen and Jim Liban will perform with Lil' Rev 8:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at Linneman's Riverwest Inn. Cohen will also take part in the annual Sleighriders charity concert 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Shank Hall.


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