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Steve Malerbi pic
Steve Malerbi

Interview with Steve Malerbi

JHS: What first attracted you to the harmonica?

SM: Having grown up in a musical family, I played accordian amongst other instruments as a youngster. At around age 19, a friend handed me a Hohner Marine Band to fool around with. That's where it all started.

JHS: And what lead you to take up the chromatic?

SM: After several years of blues jams, sit-ins, and short stints with local bands, a relative gave me a Hohner 270 as a holiday gift. I hadn't thought about it really at all until then. As a blues player, the first step was to learn positions on it, then play the different keyed chromatics. Fast forward another 12 years or so, family grown, more time available, and I decided it was time to try to learn how to play the one instrument in all keys. Although I had listened to jazz over the years, it was at that time I decided to take a look at it more seriously, which narrowed the focus to mainly the 64 chromatic.

JHS: You are well known in the harmonica community as a skilled harmonica tech, customizing and keeping the chromatics of players such as Rob Paparozzi, Norton Buffalo, and several of the Jazz Harmonica Summit players in shape. It is a difficult job that requires special talent, how did you get into that?

SM: Having collected a box full of harmonicas of my own, I began to realize the necessity of learning how to maintain and repair them. About the time I met Michael Peloquin, 10 years or so ago now (who also introduced me to SPAH) I met Dick Gardner, who patiently spent the next several years teaching me the craft of harmonica repair and customization. As time went on, I took on other peoples work, and ended up building a business that now has clientele across the US, and out into the world.

JHS: You play with a variety of bands, how did that all come about?

SM: Wearing a couple of different hats (I'm also an active drummer) gets me out in a variety of situations. At one point along the line, I was asked to take the percussion chair in The James Moseley Band, a local working R&B band. They knew I played harmonica, so as time went on, I ended being called on to play many of the solos, horn lines, and of course, on the Stevie Wonder tunes the band does. When that ended, I started getting calls for other harmonica and drum work with local bands. With my foray into jazz, on both the harmonica and the drums, that opened up a whole new avenue. Amidst that, one of the people I was playing drums with asked if I'd like to do a harmonica jazz night. We did it, it turned out pretty good, so we started booking it once a month at a restaurant we played at. Out of that came the formation of It's Harmonica Jazz, a guitar, bass, and harmonica trio.

JHS: Who are some of your main influences on the instrument?

SM: Having started to play music very early on, I learned to listen to all instruments, and get inspiration from everything out there. Specific to the harmonica though, I'd have to say first and foremost I've learned the most from Norton. Early on, it was also Paul Butterfield, and all the old blues masters. Stevie Wonder and Toots. Most recently Rob Paparrozi, and Tollak Ollestad.

Currently, Steve plays with his Harmonica Jazz trio, local favorites (on drums) The San Francisco Medicine Ball Band, Lauralee Brown and Company, harmonica with The Rent Party Rhythm Section, The JSN Trio, and has just finished playing harmonica with and recording several tunes with local jazz singer Lady D.

A fairly new project is the Jazz Harmonica Ensemble with Jon Erikson, Damien Masterson, Michael Peloquin and Winslow Yerxa. With this combo, he's been getting some time in on the bass, and occasionally the chord as well.

Steve plays Hohner harmonicas exclusively. His main axe is the Super 64, and he uses the CBH 2016 for recording and occasionally playing live.