Half of the tunes on Carlos del Junco’s new CD, Hang On, are covers. The rest were written by someone else.
It’s no big deal that the Toronto-based musician has “never been much of a songwriter”, as he readily admits when reached at his home: he is a serviceable singer and one of the finest harmonica players alive today, with a big sound and immense melodic flexibility. He’s also got great taste, having picked Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, and Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl” for the new record, alongside a couple of more left-field choices, such as avant-jazz great John Zorn’s surprisingly atmospheric “The Rain Horse”. But what really sets Hang On apart is five pieces from the pen of stealth superstar Kevin Breit, who also guests on mandolin.
“Kevin’s been a huge influence and inspiration for me,” del Junco notes. “I always say that my records are as much his as they are mine, because he’s got such a distinctive sound.”
The partnership dates back to the early 1990s, when Breit was playing country pop with his siblings Gary and Garth, and del Junco was gearing up for a solo career. “I saw him play with the Breit Brothers,” del Junco recalls. “He was doing a solo Dobro piece and I thought, ‘Who’s this kid?’ It turned out he lived in Toronto, so I hired him for a session and got him to play on my first record. We played together for six months and then he got snagged up by Holly Cole and we’ve barely played live together after that, just for CD releases and the occasional gig.”
Breit—who’s since gone on to work with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson—is a fierce improviser but, as del Junco says, there’s also a sweetness about some of his tunes that is well-suited to the harmonica’s almost-human voice.
“I like a lot of things that Kevin does for the reason that they’re quirky, but [on Hang On] I’ve also introduced two melodies, ‘Marjorie’ and ‘Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head’, that are just beautiful—two beautiful ballads, you know. Now and then he just writes these songs that are just kind of timeless.”
Breit won’t be able to make del Junco’s West Coast tour, but don’t worry: the harmonica ace will be joined by another exceptional and underrecognized guitarist, Eric St. Laurent, alongside bassist Henry Heilig. There are good reasons for this minimalistic lineup, del Junco allows, including that three people and an upright bass can fit in your average rental SUV. “But I also just love the stripped-down sound,” he adds. “There’s more space, in some ways, to let the music breathe.”
Carlos del Junco plays St. James Hall on Sunday (March 18).