Mark Hummel began playing the harmonica in high school, mostly because he couldn’t play the guitar.

“All my friends were really good guitar players, and I wasn’t,” said Hummel, who leads the Blues Harmonic Blowout tonight at Empire Dine and Dance on Congress Street in Portland.

“I gravitated toward the harmonica and never let up. I got threatened a lot — ‘You better learn to play that thing or we’re going to shove it up your …’ So I practiced really hard and got pretty good.”

Tonight’s early-evening blowout also features three other exceptional harmonica players: Kenny Neal, Jerry Portnoy and James Montgomery.

Hummel, a Chicago-style blues player, has been putting these harmonica jams together since 1991. He has a rotating crop of players and tries to put three or four guys together who complement one another. Each plays 20 or 30 minutes, and they all jam at the end.

This is a particularly strong lineup because it features four world-class players. Neal plays a swamp-blues mixture with a little soul. Portnoy is a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago blues stylist, true to his roots. Before playing with Eric Clapton, he was with Muddy Waters. Great pedigree.

Montgomery plays a soul-, R&B- and rock-style harmonica. He and Neal are the showmen of the bunch, while the other two tend to lie back a bit.

“I tend to be somewhere in the middle,” said Hummel, who was born in Connecticut. “I actually tend to be all over the map musically. I love the Chicago blues and the jump blues, which has been my main forte for a long time. But I have also veered off into New Orleans R&B for a while, and jazzier stuff.”

The shows are spontaneous and rarely planned out.

“The only thing we know we are going to do, we’re all getting together to jam at the end,” Hummel said. “With that, you find the common denominator to bring it all together.”

In addition to tonight’s show at the Empire, Hummel will bring his Blues Harmonica Blowout to the Time Out Pub, 275 Main St., Rockland, on Sunday. Portnoy won’t make that gig, but the others will be there.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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