While Donald Harrison may never have enjoyed the high profile of his New Orleans contemporaries --Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard--the alto saxophonist still may be the most interesting, most accessible, and most adventurous jazz musician in the country right now. He's been exploring ways to incorporate popular rhythms in a jazz context, and in the process has forged a vision that combines subtle but dynamic innovation with the highest standards of jazz performance.
His apprenticeship in the early 1980s was served at the front ranks of the modern-jazz tradition, with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a long-established proving ground for young talent--as it happened, he and trumpeter Blanchard replaced the Marsalis brothers as featured attractions in that ensemble. The pair then formed their own New York-based band, Black Pearl, which played a primary role in the vanguard of young musicians reviving acoustic jazz during the late Fusion Era. When Blanchard left to score films for Spike Lee and pursue his own "high-art" vision of jazz, Harrison began a series of explorations in rhythm-based musical cultures: traveling to Brazil with guitarist Larry Coryell, touring with dramatic vocalist Lena Horne and salsa master Eddie Palmieri, recording with the hip-hop group Digable Planets, and cutting an album, Power of Cool, that remains on the playlist of "adult contemporary" radio stations.
Fundamental to these varied excursions has been Harrison's immersion in the Mardi Gras Indian culture of New Orleans; his father served for many years as Big Chief of one of the neighborhood "tribes" that don costumes during Carnival. Marching through the streets to the beat of rhythmic chants, the Mardi Gras Indians have provided considerable inspiration to musicians of all kinds emerging from New Orleans. "Iko Iko," for example--recorded in the 1960s by the Dixie Cups, and in the 1970s by Dr. John--is based on Mardi Gras Indian chants. In the early 1990s, Harrison collaborated with his father, Donald Harrison Sr.; Dr. John; and percussionist Howard "Smiley" Ricks on a groundbreaking project, Indian Blues, which melded authentic Indian songs with the established traditions of the modern jazz combo. By the end of the decade, Harrison had developed a concept of straight-ahead jazz supported by dominating swing rhythms colored by the syncopations of Afro-Caribbean beats. Nouveau Swing, released in 1997, and Free to Be, released in 1999, fully explore the possibilities of masterful jazz improvisation that incorporates dance rhythms and inflections.
"Not long after Terence and I broke up," Harrison recalls, "I had this magical revelation one Mardi Gras. It happened while I was masking Indian with my father. The rhythm section of the tribe was playing tambourines and drums and singing, and all of a sudden I started hearing swing, like Art Blakey or somebody, playing with that. I realized that what the Mardi Gras Indians really are doing, in their own way, is swinging. After that, I started listening to all kinds of music, trying to hear the swing in it. I've always heard different musical elements merging. I've always heard the connecting points in the music. So I decided what I wanted to do was take the elements of music we hear around us today, as well as what we learn from all the great masters, and bring the music into a new realm, a new space.
"But I didn't want to lose the context of straight-ahead jazz, because that's the one place where I can release everything that's inside of me. With jazz improvisation, you're striving for your highest level, and you're trying to create something from your heart. Jazz is the only music that has those goals as its ideal. And I really love the rhythm of swing. There's a certain feeling of euphoria I get when I'm listening to jazz that's really swinging--it's just all-encompassing for me. Really, I'm not doing anything different than what Charlie Parker might have done, because when he started in Kansas City with the Jay McShann band, what they played was the popular music of their day. Bird just took it further."
Though Nouveau Swing spent time among the jazz best-sellers, Impulse!, the label that released it, eventually fell victim to industry mergers, leaving Harrison without the support of a major record label. This misfortune hasn't stopped the 40-year-old veteran, who recently formed his own label and has just released Paradise Found, the third installment of his Nouveau Swing adventures and a vibrant exposition of his musical skills and philosophy. With his impeccably fluid stylings and a well-developed talent for sustained articulation, Harrison frequently calls to mind jazz pioneer Lester Young--who also was raised in New Orleans--but Harrison's experience includes more than a passing acquaintance with the fiery post-boppers as well. On Paradise Found, which includes tributes to both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Harrison can be heard veering toward Trane's North African tonalities as well as the beautifully cast lines that contributed to his "sheets of sound."
The new CD also marks a new stage of fulfillment for Harrison. His band now includes his seventeen-year-old nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, along with three twentysomething jazz masters: Glenn Patscha on piano, Vicente Archer on bass, and John Lamkin--who occasionally moonlights as a hip-hop DJ--on drums. With the same rhythm section in place for four years, the ensemble has developed a coherent, distinctive sound. Harrison's Indian Blues classic has recently been reissued (along with a live performance from those sessions, released under Dr. John's name, called Funky New Orleans); he recently premiered a classical piece incorporating African rhythms; he's working on a follow-up to Power of Cool, to be released on his own label; and his touring schedule is filled through the fall.
"I feel I've reached another level of maturity now," Harrison says. "Before, I always felt like I had to prove something. Now I feel like what I have to do is just what comes naturally. I feel much more at peace. And I've reached the point where I want to use music to help make the world a better place. On Paradise Found, I'm trying to play from a place of inner peace, because once you find peace inside, you have everything. And that's what we search for every day. This music can help you find that."
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