Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.

This is an extended version of the review that was published in the Aug/Sept 2019 issue of Harmonica World.

Cover from Tommy Reilly CD

Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.
Chandos CD2014
3 – CD Review by Cheng Jang Ming

Tommy Reilly is widely recognised as the master of the chromatic harmonica. He was born 100 years ago and he died 19 years ago. This collection of tracks was selected and lovingly assembled by his son David and Sigmund Groven. They have also written the extensive CD booklet covering his life and music. It is a great tribute to a unique virtuoso and giant of the chromatic harmonica.

Tommy learned violin and harmonica as a schoolboy in Canada. He started touring Europe at the age of 17, playing chromatic harmonica after his family returned to live in London. He was arrested in Leipzig in 1939 where he was studying violin and he was held in internment camps in Germany and Poland for the whole of the Second World War. The camps contained many other musicians and the imprisonment gave him the chance to practice and develop his approach to the harmonica. Being a violinist, he based his techniques on the playing of his idol, the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Tommy had access to food parcels from the Canadian Red Cross and he exchanged the coffee he received with a prison officer for Hohner harmonicas, a very precious instrument at that time. He managed to keep his violin all through the war, but it was stolen on the flight back to Britain at the end of the war in 1945.

Once he was back in London, he began to build a career playing harmonica in music halls and on the BBC.

The tracks range from his first recording, Deep Purple, made on his return to England in 1945, to his early 78rpms, and unreleased and commercial recordings made up to 1980. All the tracks have been carefully restored to bring them up modern standards.

There are tracks from Tommy’s many appearances on BBC Radio in the 1950s where he played classical music and standards. These led to 78rpm recordings on Parlophone where he was one of George Martin’s first artists. Together they employed new techniques such as echo and overdubbing on tracks like Bop! goes the Weasel and Dinah.

Tommy was a violinist in his youth and much of the inspiration for his harmonica playing came from studying Jascha Heifetz, I believe that although his instrument is harmonica, he still thinks like a violinist. You can hear his violinist style at play in his versions of Scarlatti’s Sonata, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Rachmaninoff’s Serenade, and in David Reilly’s Age of Innocence.

In fact, Zigeunerweisen is for advanced violinists, and in recent three decades several harmonica players have performed it in its entirety. But no matter how well they manage it, it always sounds to me like a tremendous effort from them. It would surprise many people that way back in 1953, Tommy Reilly had already conquered this song, not with great effort but with ease. He did it not by playing the entire work, but by picking the relevant parts. His version, rendered with impeccable ease, rhythm and vigour, truly sounds as fluid as a violin version.

Tommy’s own arrangements of El Cumbanchero, Jealousy, Begin the Beguine, The Breeze and I, are full of playfulness and ingenuity. These songs, in their original form, are rather easy ones for harmonica. But after being arranged by Tommy, they become advanced pieces for harmonica while still keeping their original lyrical flavours.

I first heard Gigue played by Tommy in one of his early videos. This is from Bach’s “Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006” for unaccompanied violin, a rather unusual piece to play on harmonica. The partita contains 6 pieces, the most famous one for harmonica players is Gavotte en Rondeau, made famous on harmonica by both Tommy Reilly and Larry Adler. They have their own arrangements (both transposed to key of C major). This Gigue is played by Tommy in the key of G major instead of the original E major. It is a very nice study piece for harmonica.

Voice from the Past, this is the first time I have heard this orchestra version. I really love this arrangement for harmonica accompanied by strings and guitar. It brings to me a deep sense of nostalgia. I couldn’t help it, I listened to it over and over again several times, as I consider this to be one of Tommy’s best performances.

I have the opportunity to listen to many old recordings of Tommy and also all his published CDs and many LPs. I actually prefer his vibrato from his early years, more intense, more violin-like. And this CD again confirms my feeling, because all tracks are from 1970 or earlier, except the last two.

The Red Flame is an original composition by Tommy. This song, and Hora Staccato, showcase his unmistakable throat staccato, so incredibly fast and yet distinctly clean. How on earth can anyone play throat staccato in octave at such high speed? He invented the Silver Concert harmonica only in 1967; I wonder how he could play so fluidly using those old 270 Super Chromonicas in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of these recordings have not been easy to find in the past and I was pleased to be able to hear some old favourite again. The 30 tracks on this CD cover all the music styles Tommy is known for – classical pieces, popular music, Irish music, pieces written for harmonica, his own composition and arrangements and musical novelties.

This retrospective look back at Tommy’s recordings is a great introduction for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work, as well as providing some great listening for lovers of music everywhere.

In the CD booklet, Sigmund Groven provides very comprehensive background details on all the songs in this collection. Tommy’s son, David, also recalls his vivid memories of his father playing his harmonica. You will never regret reading their writings!

At £9.99, it is a real bargain. The tracks are available for streaming and as a download from Chandos .

You can hear Tommy speaking and playing in these interviews by the BBC.

Here is a musical tribute to Tommy Reilly