In Search of Swing

How Donald Harrison learned to fit anything into a jazz context.

The tune is "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," a theme recognizable in the first two intervals--one that recalls Milt Jackson's resonant vibes or John Coltrane's probing sax. A drum roll opens this particular rendition, a bass pattern repeats between the first and second beats of the measure, and the pianist joins. The rhythm section burbles and gurgles in anticipation of the sax entrance just a few bars ahead.

Just then, as you listen, something strikes you as a bit odd. The pianist keeps a steady, subdued comp, but he's dropping chords on a subtly but undeniably dreadlocked two and four, like a guitarist or organist on any number of reggae tunes. By the time the sax player hits the theme--stretching some notes, clipping others--you don't know if you're thinking Jackson, Coltrane, or Bob Marley.

This is the new sound of the idiosyncratic saxophonist Donald Harrison: an acoustic jazz skillfully altered and emboldened through reggae, funk, hip-hop, the traditional music of the Mardi Gras Indians, and whatever else Harrison's bloodhound nose roots out.

Donald "Duck" Harrison grew up in New Orleans as part of the city's second jazz reich. He studied with Ellis Marsalis and Kidd Jordan and now stands with the city's other latter-day additions to the scene: the brothers Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, and Harry Connick Jr. Harrison never managed as high a profile, because he had a difficult time keeping his musical restlessness in check. His recordings (a straight-ahead outing one day, far edgier fare the next) were the artifacts of an unwieldy range and interest--ambitious, but pulled out of joint and socket.

Lately, a change of scene. Coordinating a newfound maturity with a move to the artist-friendly Impulse label, Harrison has finally gotten the jump on all his musical interests. It's a post-bop conception he calls "nouveau swing." The concept, on the face of it, is pretty simple: locate the swing. Any music can shine in a jazz context with a swing beat put to it. The idea came to him, as Harrison explains, during a visit home to New Orleans. Harrison's father was a Mardi Gras Indian chief--one of a group of individuals who, through ritual, music, dance, and the metaphor of the American Indian, keeps alive the traditions of Congo Square. Harrison joined in as a musician, and when he did, he began to hear new possibility in the familiar music of his childhood.

"We were doing the music of the Mardi Gras Indians, and I started hearing that it was swinging," says a laconic Harrison in a N'Awlins accent that could thicken soup. "The two sounds sounded good together. So I came out with a record called Indian Blues."

The album took a jazz foundation to the chanting Mardi Gras Indian music of New Orleans, pairing Harrison Sr. and tribe with young hotshots like pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Harrison found possibility in the odd fusion and quickly thereafter turned his ears back to all the African-American music he dug but couldn't slip into his jazz comfortably--music like R&B, funk, reggae, and hip-hop.

"That's the first place I really began to hear that you could put a swing beat into that kind of music," Harrison says. "I started listening to things on the radio, hearing how they would sound in a jazz band, how a dance step relates to a certain beat or a certain bass line. I began to write what I was hearing, and I found the players who I thought had the natural ability to achieve it."

Harrison's latest recording, Free to Be, his second for Impulse, bears the fruits of his musical manifesto. On the title tune and the Meters cover "Cissy Strut," Harrison and company have translated the buoyancy and strut of funk to his own brand of acoustic jazz. And then, beyond the funk and reggae, Harrison tackles some unusual covers, like an obscure Ellington ("Blue Rose") and a beautiful, lachrymose rendition of a tune by Bill Lee ("Again, Never").

From tune to tune, Harrison mixes the personnel, choosing to play on one cut with his young working band and then on another with a group of top-drawer accompanists, like Mulgrew Miller and Christian McBride. But despite all the switch-ups, the album has a coherency, a definite Harrison-led sound.

Part of what strings it all together is the newly mature sound of Harrison's horn. Though at one moment he ranges like Coltrane and another he honks up the funk like Maceo Parker, Harrison has developed a sound wholly his own. He can be fiercely exploratory and doesn't shy away from more extended improvisation, but he softens his attack with accessible touches.

"I've learned with age how to temper certain things," he says. "[The experimental edge] is there, it's just placed well. If you're trying to get a point, you don't have to scream at the top of your lungs all the time--you just have to play what comes naturally. I've learned how to make the music feel good to people and still keep the elements in it that I like."

Not to say, however, that everything comes up shiny on Free to Be. He may have logged time with Digable Planets and befriended a thirteen-year-old Notorious B.I.G., but Harrison's own "Nouveau Swing (Reprise)" is an unconvincing hip-hop outing. It may be just a bit of studio fun and could have been easily overlooked, if it didn't sit squarely in Free to Be's limp second half.

There Harrison bares the dark (read: light) side of his newly laid-back soul. Cuts like "Mr. Cool Breeze" and "Smooth Sailing" are every bit as low-fat as their titles suggest. Thick, funky bass and edgy saxophone out; airy guitars and lightweight improvisation in. "Feelin' Jazzy" starts out well enough, with plenty of James Brown promise, but ends up sounding like an intro vamp for a singer who never shows. Only the Latin bit, "Slowvisor," brings the level up a few notches, thanks largely to the guest piano of the song's composer, Eddie Palmieri.

Nevertheless, Harrison is on to something. Not only is the album selling remarkably well (by jazz standards), but he and his working band have been getting positive crowd response everywhere they go. "Sometimes we have to quit, because we've gotten so many encores, which is wonderful," Harrison says. "One great thing is looking in the audience and seeing people actually singing the songs. That's happening with this new recording as well as with [the previous album] Nouveau Swing. And that's something."

Donald Harrison Quartet, with the Greg Bandy Trio. 9 p.m., Saturday, May 15, Diamondback Brewery, 274 Prospect Avenue, $17.50 ($20 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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