The velocity of Jon Popper's quicksilver harmonica bluster remains, for me, just that , harmonica bluster, an machine gun's impression of someone trying to spit up a hairball. This is not to say that Popper and his band Blues Traveller haven't distracted and surprised me with energy and innovation in their capacity as a "jam band". Or that Popper himself hasn't been able to control his conspicuous ability to step on the gas at will on that small instrument and performed turns in the spotlight that made me envious of his moment and how well he used it. But sum total, Popper is not my favorite harmonica player, and he isn't likely to ascend in my estimation. Often , quite often, too often, is harmonica improvisations resemble not so much extensions of what you can do with diatonic instruments than it does someone revving their engine after midnight to get a charge in their battery. You would swear some city noise abatement ordinances were being violated.Jon Popper is a unique harmonica player with impressive speed and verve, but he is not a good blues player. He garbles the low end, sounding more asthmatic than bracing. Predictably, he only sounds comfortable on the high notes, where his accuracy and intonation improves dramatically.
Even there, he does really bring the low, middle and high registers together; these are some sorry transitions. He is, on the other band, a very fine blues singer, based on this sample. To be fair, though, this video is some years old and it seems that Popper has learned something about blues phrasing, as in his recording of "Last Night" with Johnny Winter. He allows space to sculpt his solo. His fleet runs on the high end are not as frantic; they are shot, sharp bursts, and dead on target. It is a wonderfully chilling sound. Popper's low end execution is not the best - when he plays blues, he often sounds like he's not sure where the second, third or fourth notes are. He doesn't come to them with the intuitive ease he shows with his high register riffing. Even so, his high end escapades don't connect with anything going around him, or just barely, if at all. The solo is a mess. But he does superb stuff on the Johnny Winter track--there are years between the recordings and what Popper does throughout the improvisation is show us that he figured out how to play blues in his own style, with his signature runs, and still have it be blues. Toward the end of the solo, he gives us a masterful flurry of notes that speed by and yet maintain a blues cadence. He knows what he has to do. So there is hope for this man to get his share of blues credibility.