(A portion of the chapter on William Galison from the book LOVE OF CHROMATIC HARMONICA…TECHNIQUES AND ADVICE FROM THE WORLD’S BEST! by David Kettlewell, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com. See the link to Amazon and the book on the homepage of this website.)
WILLIAM GALISON…a unique and penetrating voice on chromatic harmonica
Will Galison is a very unique talent and considered by many to be among the very finest active chromatic harmonica players in the world today. In addition to having a phenomenal resume packed with many professional recordings (see his website, willgalison.com) he is held in very high esteem by other chromatic harmonica players and musicians of all sorts worldwide. There is a fluidity to his playing and mastery of all technical aspects of the instrument which is world class at minimum, and some would say in a class of his own.
Interviewer: How did you learn to play chromatic harmonica? You play a lot of instruments, but how’d you learn how to play harmonica?
I actually went to Berklee College of Music to study guitar when I was 17. At 16, I went for a summer, and at 17 for a year. It was my plan to go there for a year before I went to a regular liberal arts college—Wesleyan University…spent 4 years there.
I had played the blues harp casually; I used to play around with a blues harp as a child. I was always amazed that you play tunes and you don’t understand the logic of it, but there it is. So I found it very intuitive to play the diatonic…but I never thought about which notes I was playing.
Then I went to Berklee, and was suddenly deep into learning all the chords and harmonies, and jazz harmony. It wasn’t my first exposure to jazz, I’d been listening to jazz since I was 12. Playing jazz at Berklee was almost like boot camp, you go there and you learn your scales and you learn your chords, and learn certain canon standards everybody knew.
Berklee then was quite different from Berklee now. It was not great, but I’d describe it as a boot camp.
So there I was playing guitar, and I went from being sort of the best guitar player in my high school class, or so I thought, to being one of many guitarists, and not among the best.
I have a good friend Joe Cohn, who is the son of Al Kohn—the tenor saxophone player, who I’m still friendly with, and he was there, we were both the same age, both 17 or so, and man I heard this kid play and I thought, “I’m out of my depth here.”
I also was confronted with the guitar—in that I wanted to put my breath through an instrument. I really felt like the guitar was limited and that I wasn’t breathing into it, so I bought myself a Hohner 260, the smallest one that worked, believe it or not, $15 at the time, and I just started applying all the stuff I was learning on guitar to harmonica. I found the guitar very difficult and intuitive—because it’s non-linear.
I played piano also; I studied piano when I was a little kid, so I had a very ingrained sense of the keyboard, because I played piano when I was 8 or 9 years old. So I immediately started seeing the harmonica’s notes in my mind as a keyboard…a piano keyboard.
And with that, and just playing all the scales, and chords, arpeggios that I was learning on the guitar, I found it much easier to visualize and to conceptualize on the harmonica than I could on the guitar. I know that’s not true for some people, some people find the harmonica very counter-intuitive, but for me it just had a logic, and it was easy to see it immediately as a keyboard in my mind.
Interviewer: Why do you think that was?
Who knows…just the way my brain is structured—why I would find it intuitive and other people not so much. Maybe also because I had played the diatonic harmonica as a kid, and at least the middle octave is the same pattern as the chromatic.
The chromatic is actually easier in a certain sense because it repeats (the pattern of note progression repeats 4 times on a 16 hole chromatic harmonica) rather than having 3 different octave layouts (as on a richter-tuned diatonic) which is confusing to everyone.
In fact, I didn’t really get into diatonic seriously until much later after that. So I went from being a very rudimentary diatonic player, to getting deeply into chromatic, and I really became obsessed very quickly.
I think I’ve always liked the idea of doing something nobody else did—doing things unusual, as an example I had a stereo optic camera that I used for years, because nobody else had one. They were big in the 1950’s, so it was a fun thing and made me feel unique —maybe that was the appeal.
So I wanted to play saxophone actually, and I really couldn’t afford a saxophone, so somebody mentioned a chromatic harmonica, I went and bought one for $15, and very very quickly I became thoroughly enthralled with it and would play just constantly…I really could not sleep at night because I wanted to try out new things.
I guess it was the good size of being just a bit obsessive. I didn’t know anything about jazz harmonica…I’d never heard of Toots, I knew Stevie Wonder but I didn’t associate him with the chromatic harmonica.
And somebody at Berklee said when they saw me trying to play some scales, they said, “Oh, you must be a Toots Thielemans fan,” and I said, “Toots who?” and he said buy this record, so I got the Concord record of Toots at the Swiss Jazz Festival with Joe Pass on guitar, Oscar Petersen on piano, Neals Orstead Pederson on bass…it’s a fantastic record, and wow, that opened my eyes big. (A live record including Au Privave and Here’s That Rainy Day).
I said, “Wow, so this is what the harmonica can do.” And then around the same time, someone turned me onto the Eivetz Rednow record; the Stevie Wonder record he made when he was 18 where he made Alfie, which was a big hit on harmonica, in 1968. When I heard that, it did something to me that even Toots didn’t do to me, that sailing singing sound that Stevie got just because he’s Stevie…there’s no other instrument that could have had that phrasing and that kind of musical approach, because he’s who he is…it doesn’t matter what he’s playing. In fact on that album, he plays drums and keyboards and harmonica, he does not sing at all.
I wore that record out…that and Toots…day in and day out.
Strangely enough, I was so enthusiastic about it, someone heard me and I got a gig when I’d been playing for 2 or 3 months at Legal Seafood, which is a famous seafood restaurant in Boston. This guy was before it went corporate, and he was a piano player with the patience to let me play harmonica. I got $5 a gig, which seemed like a good deal at the time, and free seafood.
It was the sense I could progress on the instrument, whereas guitar it seemed like progressing was very very slow and laborious. With harmonica —each day I could learn a new tune, I could learn a new chord pattern…I could copy something new, and so I think that’s what appealed to my mentality and character.
So I really devoured the harmonica for a number of years after that…played many hours a day; listened to a lot. It’s interesting, historically, 1977, there were not many people at all at that time who were playing jazz on chromatic. Toots was younger than I am now at that age, Stevie was 26, there wasn’t a generation of chromatic jazz players.
Nobody else at Berklee touched the instrument, so I was immediately sort of known as the guy at Berklee who played the harmonica, which was cool. Not the 403rd best guitarist!
That summer I came back to New York, and somebody said “I know Toots, here’s his number, give him a call.” So I gave Toots a call and we walked up and down Broadway for an entire afternoon, and he did 5 or 6, or more (recording) sessions, one right after the other. His book was just black with dates; one was with Ralph MacDonald, one he played diatonic—and I kind of remember thinking “He doesn’t do that so great.”
On chromatic, whatever he did was just gorgeous. One was a film score, one was a commercial…it was really thrilling…and I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Of course, about a year after I came back to New York from being at Wesleyan, the studio scene completely dried up, and the glory days of the 1970’s and 80’s were done. At least I got to look at it, and for awhile I did a bunch of studio work.
Interviewer: How did Toots Thielemans impress you as a person?
Oh, he was so kind and supportive, and years later it’s funny I was looking though papers and found a journal entry for that date, as there was nobody, nobody with the exception of Stevie Wonder, no one in the world I would have chosen to hang out with. He was just what he appears to be; avuncular and kind and supportive.
Interviewer: Toots likes your music, he’s written very positive things about you, saying you have a very unique voice in our time.
Yes, he’s said I’m the most unique, or something. It’s interesting, that was quite a while ago and I don’t know if he’d say the same thing again today. I know he’s been very supportive of me and I’ve sent him some recordings over the years, and he approves.
Interviewer: If you were trying to describe his music, what would you say?
Well, he’s a very sentimental player, but he’s also extremely sophisticated, and I think that’s what sets him apart. You’ve got a lot of sophisticated jazz players on every instrument, but most of them don’t seem to be concerned with touching your heart very much, it’s more about playing with the idiom of jazz…how can I re-harmonize this, there are a lot of patterns.
Toots is not a patterned player. But he has told me that his musical choices are informed by the instrument—meaning he won’t go for something, and he understands the instrument so well, that his musical mind is not going to take him to a place that he can’t go.
He’s retired now, but even until the end of his playing, he wasn’t boxing himself into a corner. I’m much more likely to do that, because I will go wherever the music takes me, and sometimes the harmonica can’t take me there, so I’ll kind of have a little train wreck, but nobody gets hurt, and I continue on. (Laughs.)
Sometimes in the studio, I’ll try something and it won’t quite work. Of course, nowadays, you can over