An unprecedented collaboration between three generations of the San Francisco Bay Area's blues harp masters - Gary Smith, David Barrett and Aki Kumar.
The Making of It Takes Three by David Barrett
In 2006 I approached Gary Smith (my mentor at age 16 and South Bay blues harmonica legend) about doing a recording project where the interaction between the harmonica players was the theme. Gary had done this type of thing before, most notably for Tom Mazzolini’s San Francisco Blues Festival and annual Battle of the Blues Harmonicas (this was THE premier blues harmonica show on the West Coast), but it was challenging to get the other harmonica players to spend the time required to learn their parts well enough to make the music really successful. I offered Gary my arranging and organization skills and promised that we’ll make it happen and he agreed.
We went to work writing the material and decided to invite Aki Kumar to join us on the project. Aki is now a highly respected player and producer on the West Coast. At that time Aki was a rising star, but Gary and I knew that he had the discipline and chops needed to make this music successful. The added bonus was that Aki was a former student of mine (one of my most dedicated), and I was a former student of Gary’s (one of his most dedicated!). The “Three Generations” of blues harmonica idea really grabbed us. We did one performance in 2009 for the San Jose Jazz Festival, and we loved playing together and the show was a big success. My education website BluesHarmonica.com launched soon after that show and the time it required of me prevented me from following up on the project.
At the 2014 Harmonica Masterclass Workshop in San Jose, California Gary and I performed together as part of the evening performances and it rekindled my desire to record our unique material. Shortly after the workshop I contacted Gary and Aki and asked if they were still interested in the project and they were excited to proceed. Due to how depressed the blues music economy was and still is, we all agreed that we would split the cost of the project and if we broke even we’d be happy. WE wanted to record this project. This music was the music WE wanted to write and play. We figured there were enough harmonica nuts like us out there that would appreciate the project to make it viable.
We refined the old arrangements and we each wrote new individual tunes to round out the project. We all chose to work with Kid Anderson on the guitar and use his Greaseland studio to record. We then selected our A-list of musicians (Steve Lucky on piano, Mike Phillips on bass and Marty Dodson on drums) and fortunately they all said yes to participating in the project.
We recorded on November 29th and 30th of that year, rehearsing each song in the studio with the musicians and then recording live. We commonly recorded two takes of each song (some only once) and did any overdubs on the spot to fix errors or give multiple options in mixing. The entire weekend was video recorded for the students of BluesHarmonica.com to learn from by volunteers Marc Graci, Gleidson Sousa and John Rafferty (thanks guys!). Gary and Aki came back in shortly after to re-track some of their vocals and fix any harp parts. I came in to redo my solo on “Rocket Ride,” as did the others... it was a challenging tune for all of us to play something we were happy with. Kid went to Norway to visit family in January and mixed the tunes, mastering them when he arrived back mid-month.
2 It was time to focus on the artwork and I proposed that we do a caricature for the cover, commissioning Brazilian artist Sidney Meireles for the job. They were game, so we threw a sheet on the wall and took pictures of us three together for Sidney to use as reference. Sidney suggested we include our signatures and with the help of graphic designer Mark Castle we have a CD cover that we think is really fun. Gary requested that we include text on the making of each song and pictures of our amps and mics. I of course made sure that the harmonica keys and positions they were played in were listed as well. The end result is way too much text and a whole bunch of pictures of mouth-watering amplifiers and microphones—a layout design only a blues harmonica nut can appreciate.
Knowing that there will be harmonica students eager to learn the songs on the CD, I took the time (about 45 hours of work in total) to transcribe all of the harmonica harmony parts, fills and solo played on the CD. Those interested can pickup up this transcription set at www.bluesharmonica.com/it_takes_three_transcriptions.
Now that the project is done, and it’s releasing to the public, we look back and are happy to have had the opportunity to play together. We hope that everyone enjoys the music as much as we enjoyed creating it!