Making a connection
Harmonica wizard of J. Geils Band fame teams up with Shun NgBy MIKE COTE
Union Leader Staff June 03. 2015 2:26PM
If you go...WHO: Magic Dick and Sun Ng
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Portsmouth Book and Bar, 40 Pleasant St., Portsmouth
INFO: 427-9197; bookandbar.com
While there’s nearly a half-century between their birth dates, harmonica player Magic Dick knew he found a musical soulmate when he met guitarist and singer Shun Ng.
It was hardly a chance meeting. The long-time member of Boston’s legendary J. Geils Band was stunned when he heard Ng’s 2012 debut CD “Funky Thumb Stuff” and saw some of his videos on YouTube. Magic Dick (aka Richard Salwitz) loved all the space he heard in Ng’s finger-style acoustic guitar playing. And he had ideas about how he could fill some of it.
“I was immediately taken by his arranging, his composing and more particularly by his performance, his uncanny ability to play and sing the way he does and the amount of space he leaves in his compositions and his playing, ” said Dick, who performs with Ng on Sunday at the Book and Bar in Portsmouth.
Shun was born in Chicago but raised in Singapore. He returned to the United States a few years ago via a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, where he studied for two semesters before leaving to work as a full-time musician. The guitarist is known for his frenetic fingerwork, thumb-plucked bass lines, and making every note count. Including the ones he doesn’t play.
“The fact that there’s this space makes a huge difference to me and to my desire to want to do this with Shun because the moment I recognized that space, I thought, ‘Ah.’ I could hear harmonica there in what he was doing,” Dick said this week from his home outside Boston.
So Dick sought out Ng, who also is based in the Boston area, and the two connected during an initial meeting that lasted more than three hours. Thus began a musical partnership just beginning to take off.
The Book and Bar gig is the latest in only about a half-dozen shows they’ve booked since beginning their collaboration. The only recorded evidence to date is a year-old YouTube video of Dick and Ng performing James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
But it’s a stunner. The call-and-response guitar-harmonica workout starts off bluesy before going full-throttle funk. It’s the work of two men pulling off the parlor trick of sounding like a full band, thanks to Ng’s percussive guitar work, Dick’s rhythmic harmonica style and notes both played and suggested.
The guitar-harmonica duo has a rich history in the blues. Magic Dick, 70, and Shun Ng, 25, aim to take that tradition in another dimension, Dick says, though the blues underlies everything they do.
“I think that’s the primary thing about what Shun and I are doing. We’re doing new stuff. We’re doing an old format — meaning two players — in a very new way,” he said. “What people hear ... is somewhat startling because of its freshness, its conception musically, which, again, is an outgrowth of our love for minimalism.”
That freshness brings newfound inspiration to Dick, who continues to work with the J. Geils Band. While the reunited group still performs — an Aug. 23 show is scheduled at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom — they haven’t recorded a new album since breaking up more than 30 years ago.
Dick helped bring the J. Geils Band to prominence in its ‘70s heyday with the instrumental “Whammer Jammer,” and his solos were featured prominently in the R&B-based hits “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party,” “Lookin’ for a Love” and “Give it to Me.” Dick, whose first instrument was the trumpet, convinced the band in 1977 to cover Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Not Rough,” in which he transcribed Armstrong’s cornet parts for harmonica.
With J. Geils, Dick is a featured player, but with Shun, he has a much bigger role.
“There is a huge difference for me, just from a workload point of view, in terms of what I play in the show. There’s just a lot more playing to be done when I work with Shun because it’s just the two us,” he said.
“But it’s not that it’s just the two of us because that’s how it happens to work out; it’s just the two of us by design.”