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UO graduate pioneers new musical genre with his harmonica

When Joe Powers was two years old, his aunt bought him his first harmonica.

He still has the photo from that Christmas Day, in his Captain America pajamas with the harmonica in his hands. As a teenager, he’d play it endlessly, walking down the street and waiting at bus stops. The front pocket on his jeans began to wear in the spot where he kept it.

Powers, now a University of Oregon graduate and a professional harmonica player, was joined by several other musicians to play as the ensemble Joe Powers and Friends during the Oregon Bach Festival on July 11.

“I’m happy to have the opportunity to open some people’s minds about the harmonica,” said Powers. “It’s kind of an underestimated instrument.”

His bandmates include Bernardo Gomez (bass), Jesse Brooke (percussion), Randy Porter (piano), Mitsuki Dazai (koto, a Japanese stringed instrument) and eminent Japanese jazz guitarist Yosuke Onuma, the winner of the 2014 Jazz Japan Award for Best Album of the Year. The musicians played a repertoire of jazz, tango, classical, baroque, blues and Brazilian music from composers such as Herbie Hancock, Johann Sebastian Bach and Astor Piazzolla, along with some original works by Powers.

On Thursday, July 9, Powers released his fifth studio album, Apasionado, which features six original tango-fusion tracks and six covers, all featuring Powers’ harmonica.

Although Powers played the harmonica for most of his life, the UO School of Music and Dance wouldn’t let him apply by playing it, since the school had no curriculum for the instrument.

He auditioned for the school by singing. While enrolled, he focused on voice and composition, and eventually graduated with a degree in music composition.

Twelve years later, he returned to the same stage in Beall Hall where he was handed his diploma. But this time, he was there to play the harmonica with his tango quintet for the 2012 Oregon Bach Festival. The sold-out show was so packed that extra chairs were placed on the stage.

“Basically, I came back and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a real instrument,’” Powers laughed. “It’s always a challenge in the beginning to get people to take the harmonica seriously. Once they realize what it can do, things can change. It was very special for me and validating.”

In 2005, Powers placed fourth in the World Harmonica Championship in Trossingen, Germany. He now tours the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia annually, both as a soloist and with different ensembles.

Dr. Robert Kyr, a Philip H. Knight professor in the UO School of Music and Dance, was one of Powers’ former instructors.

“Joe is one of the very first composers to explore tango through the harmonica,” said Dr. Kyr, who is also a director of the OBF Composers Symposium. “It’s a very original approach and a completely new way of exploring that rich tradition in both dance and concert music.”

George Evano, the former OBF communications director, said hearing Powers play his harmonica during the 2012 festival provided a nice contrast to the mainstream classical program.

“It’s like a little bit of champagne before the main course or something to cleanse the palette,” Evano said. “All the concerts I’ve been to of Joe’s,” Evano said. “Feels like you’re a part of the party, not just watching it.”

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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.