Saxophonist Tom Harrison talks Ellington

 Tom-Harrison

Following a year of intensive study of Duke Ellington's music, London–based saxophonist Tom Harrison is about to embark upon on an ambitious tour focusing on the legendary bandleader’s music. Sarah Chaplin caught up with him to hear all about it.

SC: When did you first start listening to Ellington and what is it about his work that inspires you?

TH: I started listening to and playing his music quite early on, and the thing that always struck me is that it’s dancing music. No matter how far away we get from that dancehall period, Ellington’s music retains that spirit, it’s so soulful. For me, one the most important attributes of jazz music is that it makes you want to move. That’s the biggest lesson I learnt from listening to Ellington’s music.

SC: Is that the thing that jazz is in danger of losing nowadays?

TH: I don’t think it necessarily needs to be present to make great music – it’s just my personal opinion – but I would like my own playing to retain that feeling, I’d like to continue to develop it further and find a way to keep that dancing energy in the music.

SC: When you were studying jazz at Trinity music college was Ellington’s era something you particularly related to? Did your tutors encourage you to channel that sound in any way?

TH: I was probably encouraged to check out that music at some point, but I didn’t actually discover the beauty of it until later. I got into studying ballads about 18 months ago – I was a huge Coltrane fan, and was basically transcribing all his ballads – and I went into really fine detail about his phrasing and started wondering where it was all coming from, and that’s what led me back to Ellington, and that was when I got really into it again. I’ve always been interested in people like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley who retained that dancing, rhythmic spirit no matter how far away from that era they got. When I look back, the rhythmic aspects of jazz weren't discussed as much at college. I mean we were encouraged to feel swing, and to work hard on harmony and improvising and things like that – the course is so well worked out – but generally music education just doesn't focus on rhythm to the same degree that it focuses on the melodic and harmonic facets of music.

SC: Is there someone in particular who has enabled you to realise a touring project like this forthcoming one?  

TH: Yeah, I’d like to credit Marty Kahn, the co–founder of Outward Visions Inc., with that. He set up Outward Visions as a not-for-profit arts organisation in 1980 and has worked with people like Sonny Fortune, Steve Reich, Gary Bartz, John Zorn and so on, producing their albums, arranging tours, and he was the one who’s really encouraged me. He came up with the idea of the ‘reverse apprenticeship’ as something I should pursue – which is how I came to work with Sonny Fortune –  so this project is more than just touring Ellington’s materials; it’s going to be a series of activities – the Sonny Fortune thing is going to continue, the Duke Ellington thing will be recorded and that’s going to be my next album, and then looking ahead there’s going to be more situations where I’m working with different musicians, learning from them, and hopefully bringing something to their music too. That’s the scope of what I’m looking to achieve.

SC: You’ve mentioned going systematically through Ellington’s Victor recordings and transcribing tunes and solos etc, is there any other archival work involved in this project? Are you attempting to retrieve or recover some lost or hidden material of his?

TH: I’m really interested in the relationship between his less successful music and his well-known hits, those that subsequently became jazz standards. What made the difference? Although people’s musical tastes have changed and the way they consume music has changed, I think fundamentally people respond to music in much the same way. That’s what really interests me – trying to find among say two pieces of his music, the relationship between the sound, like say taking one from really early on, such as ‘Warm Valley’ and putting it alongside a much later Ellington number like the Newport Festival Suite. Going back through the recordings I discovered that ‘Warm Valley’ was a Johnny Hodges feature in the 1930s, and it’s just exquisite, completely different from anything else Ellington wrote around that time.

SC: What kind of impact are you hoping this project might have on your own writing and composing?

TH: I haven’t recorded any original music of mine in quite a while because my focus has been on other things, but I’m always writing and I’m hoping in a subconscious way that it will feed my imagination. 

SC: Who’s in the line-up for this tour?

TH: It’ll be a Quartet for five of the gigs and a Quintet for three of them, but we will be changing the instrumentation on stage each evening, and doing some numbers as solos, duos and trios too, bringing together different kinds of musicians. Some gigs are going to be with Robert Mitchell on piano, which will be amazing, and I’m also really interested in working with Cleveland Watkiss, he’s just such an incredible force. It’ll be interesting – we have the same range and will be playing a similar role, but he will be using his electronic set up to add more texture and timbre, so it might be interesting to play flute with him on one or two tunes and see what happens. I don’t want it to just be me on saxophone weaving lines.

SC: You sound as though you operate with a certain fearlessness where new combinations are concerned. Is that the case, are you just keen to see what happens?

TH: That’s where the thing comes alive, bringing together something that might initially seem unusual. But I am working with people who make stuff happen, they don't just sit back.

SC: I have a question about jazz audiences and whether or not you think they are dwindling, and if this Ellington project is on some unconscious level intended to address this issue?

TH: The fact that people have heard of Ellington does help draw things together and gives the tour a marketing angle, but predominantly the decision to work on Ellington is music–focused. The question is a good one though, because around the UK there’s quite a lot of difference about who goes to jazz gigs. I’ve noticed that in places where there is a strong workshop culture they have quite a broad audience, right across the age range, whereas at other clubs it can be, as you say, quite limited. It depends where you go, but I think in a broad sense people are developing a newfound familiarity with jazz – maybe though seeing films like The Great Gatsby – it’s definitely more in the public consciousness again, certainly since I’ve been listening to jazz. If you go to all the new jazz clubs in East London, it’s a very young crowd, and the audience is all young professionals who are into consuming jazz. Through the business I run to promote other artists, our remit or mission statement if you will, is to develop more diverse audiences and reach out to different demographics. It’s working with promoters to help do that, bring people in, work within communities, so that the gig is not the end of it, but hopefully the beginning of something in that location. I’m working with Trish Clowes now, and on her recent Emulsion Festival, where a lot of the programme is very abstract, avant-garde music, so it’s really important to make a good connection with the audience. We really want to help people understand the music without patronising them. It’s all about building up a community around the festival, inviting the right people in, even if they only hear it for a few minutes. I feel that I have an obligation to do that too, to really reach people with my music.

SC: When it comes to the live sound specifically, what is it that you’re after? Ellington’s band sound was very particular – is there anything you’re looking to recreate with regard to the sound engineering?

TH: We’re trying to keep it as acoustic as possible, to allow the musicians to craft their own sound, to enable them to reference things about Ellington’s music that they enjoy and attach importance to, so from a technical point of view, I’m after a certain bass sound, because that really characterises Ellington’s era. Then there is the sound production with the saxophone. At the time there was a shift happening from the Super Balanced Action to the Selmer Mark 6 and that fed into the music, in terms of intonation, warmth and richness of tone, timbre, articulation, dynamics – all evolved during that period. Mine is a 1958 Mark 6, and I had no idea about any of what makes that vintage tone until I took it to Richard Mattingly, an incredible sax tech, to get it set up. Ellington’s era now seems to me to be not only an overlap period in terms of what kind of music was being written and played, but also for the saxophone. It was an overlap period when the whole sound of the instrument was being honed and refined. So yes, the technical aspects do impact on how I envisage the project, but it’s more about how the guys can feel as relaxed as possible and play their best.

SC: How do you manage your time as a musician while also running a business promoting other artists?

TH: It’s difficult, but when you’ve got something you want to achieve you get it done. You have to prioritise and make sure you don’t take on too much. You have to get up early and get your emails and phone calls done, so that you have time to rehearse on the horn. It needs a lot of focus. If I make a decent living from my business, then it also gives me options – I have more choice over which projects I get involved with and which gigs I take on. Each day is a gift to me.

SC: So what else have you got planned for 2016?

TH: Well, I’ve got a few trio gigs with me, Dave Lyttle and the great John Goldsby. We’ll be doing a few dates in the UK around April and some dates in Germany in the autumn, as well as the Derry Jazz Festival and maybe one more. Dave is so great on a trio gig, he can really fill out the space and make it feel so dense, like there’s lots happening. And to get the chance to work with someone like John Goldsby – wow – he’s incredibly tasteful, and it’s all there, like you couldn’t wish for more technically – his ability and understanding of the music, and then he plays with such humility too. So that will be a chance to bring some of my music to the table, and hopefully we’ll play some of John’s tunes too. So all in all, lots to look forward to this year!

The Tom Harrison Quintet featuring Cleveland Watkiss will be playing at The Pizza Express on Dean Street on Wednesday 3 February

For more information visit www.tomharrisonsax.com

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