Best Harp Player: Sandy Weltman

Blues harmonica is a big deal in St. Louis. It seems like just about every blues band playing on the club circuit features a quality blues-harp player. But in my opinion, the best harmonica player in St. Louis doesn't focus on playing the blues. You're more likely to hear him playing jazz standards like Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High," a funky cover version of Carmen Miranda's "Tico Tico" or a host of original compositions blending rock, bluegrass, Third World music and New Orleans second line into something referred to as "tribal swampgrass."

The musician, in case you haven't guessed, is Sandy Weltman, and in addition to being an excellent harmonica player he's quite accomplished on the banjo. He's probably best known for his work with the eclectic group the Sandroids, which includes instrumentation as varied as mandolin, trombone and keyboard bass. With the Sandroids, Weltman was free to explore eclectic musical nooks and crannies, but somehow his musical skills seemed to hold all that diversity together. On the Sandroids' fine CD Escape Velocity, Weltman mostly featured his talents on banjo with the group, only occasionally showcasing his amazing harmonica technique.

That changed when he decided to move in a jazz direction -- and began working with pianist Carolbeth True, bass player Glen Smith and drummer Kevin Gianino. The group, called New World Harmonica, released an eponymous CD on which Weltman focused exclusively on playing harmonica on tunes by the likes of jazz greats King Oliver, Thelonious Monk, Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Lee Morgan, Chick Corea and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Thanks to techniques he learned from harmonica ace Howard Levy, Weltman was able to expand the limited range of the basic 10-hole diatonic harmonica "blues harp" and make it a viable jazz instrument.

He's a busy man, planning a recording based on klezmer music, working on an original song with True to be included on a sampler CD being produced by radio station KDHX (88.1 FM). He just got back from a weeklong workshop in North Carolina put together by Levy and will be featured in a documentary film about Levy called The Man with Two Brains. Locally, he'll be working with New World Harmonica every Friday night at Bobby's in Maplewood beginning in January, as well as doing a monthly gig at Cicero's with the Sandroids. And Weltman still does play the blues harmonica on occasion, working with schoolkids. It's a busy schedule, one that provides you with countless opportunities to witness the best harmonica player in this harmonica town.

-- Terry Perkins

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