The chief comes to town

Sax player Donald Harrison performs in the Hot Jazz series.

Donald Harrison (photo credit: JAZZ ASCONA)
Donald Harrison
(photo credit: JAZZ ASCONA)
If you’re looking for jazz pedigree, you can’t do much better than get someone in from New Orleans, the accepted cradle of the art form. Donald Harrison, who is the next star turn in this year’s Hot Jazz series, hails from said southern US city and will be doing his bit to entertain audiences in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa between January 25 and 30.
The 55-year-old saxophonistvocalist is a prime example of the eclectic reach of the discipline. He is well steeped in the history and roots of jazz but is also very much in the here and now. He can unfurl a bebop solo as well as the next jazz guy or gal, but he is always looking to infuse his work with contemporary energies and sonic forms.
Harrison gained his formal education at Southern University, at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and subsequently at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He quickly came to the attention of some of the doyens of the profession, serving in valuable sideman berths with the likes of drummer Roy Haynes, organist Jack McDuff and iconic drummer Art Blakey’s longrunning Jazz Messengers group.
Those confluences with master players who preceded the young Harrison by a couple of generations, combined with being born in the right place, gave the reedman a healthy handle on where it all comes from.
“Charlie Parker said, ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’ I try to live everything and experience it so that the music has a truthful essence,” says Harrison.
His reference to Parker was part of the flow of our conversation and was certainly relevant to the subject matter, as it brought one of the founding fathers of modern jazz into the confab. It was also entirely appropriate for the local tour at hand, as the shows are being presented as a tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Naturally, Harrison will not be attempting to imitate Bird’s approach to jazz standards, even if anyone around today were capable of matching the late master’s peerless delivery. Then again, the New Orleans native will be following Parker’s suit.
“I’ll be trying to do what he did, learning from the great masters of jazz,” says Harrison. “You have to understand what the music is.
This is traditional music. A lot of musicians don’t want to play the blues and learn the tradition.”
Harrison believes you’ve got to know where you’re coming from if you’re going to get anywhere.
“There are a lot of guys who are great musicians, but they are not connected to jazz. They don’t really understand how to play jazz.
They are missing the elements of the music. You can’t play something if you haven’t paid your dues. You can’t write if you don’t know the alphabet,” he states simply. Makes sense.
No one could accuse Harrison of not being fully cognizant of the origins and evolution of his chosen creative path, which allows him to push on and to incorporate more contemporary styles, energies and formats. Around 20 years ago, Harrison dipped into the history of the music to form Nouveau Swing, which marries the titular rhythm with currently popular dance styles, seasoned with sounds that emanate from his hometown.
Over the years, Harrison has continued to bend the boundaries of his oeuvre and recently recorded his first self-penned orchestral composition.
“I look at music from a lot of different angles,” he says. “That is the essence of experience.”
People who hail from New Orleans generally love their food, so it comes as no surprise when Harrison refers to cuisine-related matters to illustrate his point about fusing a range of musical sensibilities to arrive at the requisite aural taste bud-enticing stew.
“It’s like cooking. If you add a little bit of onion, you have to change the spices. If it’s beef soup, you want to put some beef in there. You have to understand the foundation of the music,” he explains.
Sticking with the culinary comparison, Harrison says that you’ve got to get into as many flavors as you can if you want to proffer a tasty and varied menu.
“One thing I really don’t like is when a musician says he doesn’t play something, when the real reason is that he hasn’t learned to do it. He should be saying that he doesn’t know how to play it. I have heard that before. I can accept that if they are honest. Don’t try to fool me,” she says.
Harrison has been a straight shooter for more than three decades, putting out more than 30 albums as leader or co-leader, and making his studio debut in 1982 as sideman with Blakey at the age of just 22. In the interim, he has extended his artistic output into the realms of smooth jazz, R&B and hip hop, adding vocals along the way.
It is quite unusual to find horn players who are also adept at vocalizing their music, but Harrison says it comes natural to him.
“It’s just another area to explore. It seems to make people happy,” he says.
Harrison will be joined by an Israeli threesome for his seven gigs here: pianist Hila Kulik, bass player Yonatan Levy and drummer Shai Zelman.
Donald Harrison will perform in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa between January 25 and 30. For tickets and more information about the concerts: (03) 573-3001 and