Donald Harrison: Press
“A Night in Treme” w/Donald Harrison @ Jazz Standard
Posted: June 29, 2011 by Zak Shelby-Szyszko
Wow! I’ve seen hundreds of shows at Jazz Standard over the past 5 years or so and “A Night in Treme” is one of a mere handful of shows that truly transform the club into a completely different atmosphere – I mean, the spirit of New Orleans was pulsating through every body of the sold out room on the very first set of the 3 night stand.
The stellar collective was helmed by Donald Harrison Jr. (celebrating his 51st birthday on June 23rd) with his quintet of Detroit Brooks (guitar), Zaccai Curtis (piano/keyboard), Max Moran (bass) and Joe Dyson (drums) and very special guests Cyril Neville, the Mardis Gras Indians (Shaka Zulu & Athanese Johnson) and Norwood Johnson. Donald’s nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, was even in the house and blew on several tunes.
'A Night in Treme' at the Jazz Standard
Music from the HBO series comes to New York City
The Big Easy met the Big Apple when the Jazz Standard presented “A Night in Treme,” a concert featuring music from the popular HBO series Treme. The program is set in New Orleans in the months immediately following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in addition to tightly written characters and engaging plot lines each episode is stuffed with the best music the city has to offer.
Led by alto saxophonist and vocalist Donald Harrison Jr., the Jazz Standard show, which ran for three nights, brought some of that music—specifically jazz and R&B—to the stage of the venerable New York club. The show started out in a pure bop mode, with Harrison, guitarist Detroit Brooks, pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Max Moran and drummer Joe Dyson honoring a musician not from New Orleans at all but from Kansas City. “One for Bird,” which Harrison noted appeared in Treme’s pilot show, didn’t try to channel Charlie Parker but it certainly did nod to his style. Having established their chops, the basic quintet performed three further tunes, the most notable being “The Sandcastle Headhunter,” which Harrison explained was written in Morocco and was intended to pay homage to both Jimi Hendrix (who, Harrison erroneously claimed, wrote his song “Castles Made of Sand” there) and the Headhunters, the Herbie Hancock-founded fusion band.
The arrival of Cyril Neville on congas and vocals and Norwood Johnson on percussion and vocals shifted the mood and style in another direction entirely. A founding member of the legendary Neville Brothers, Cyril Neville is as New Orleans as it gets. “We’re just gonna have fun now!” Harrison proclaimed as the expanded band launched into one called “Soul to Soul,” and it was evident that they were doing just that, much to the approval of the packed house. Slipping into a party groove, Harrison led the scream- and clap-along number, tossing in Jr. Walker-style sax riffs that elevated the intensity level onstage considerably. Neville and Harrison alternated lead vocals on the NOLA standard “Iko Iko,” followed by a seriously funky rendition of another New Orleans standby, “Hey Pocky Way,” which morphed into a street march-style chant as the advertised Mardi Gras Indians, Shaka Zulu and Athanase Johnson, sauntered onstage in full regalia.
As anyone who has watched Treme knows, the Indians are crucial to the local culture, their finery not only admired by residents and tourists but the focus of fierce competitions that rival any beauty pageant. In person at the club, the Indians were dazzling. And when the show wrapped up with Neville dedicating the celebratory “Indians Got That Fiyo” to his uncle Big Chief Jolly, aka George Landry—himself a famous Mardi Gras Indian who had founded the great Wild Tchoupitoulas in the 1970s—all that is beautiful and special about New Orleans was evident somewhere below the sidewalks of New York City.
Donald Harrison is one of the most confident and convincing improvisers in jazz today. The boundary leaping New Orleans alto saxophonistâ€™s distinctive broad toned sound is immediately recognizable as his own, regardless of the environment in which it is being heard, be it bebop, hardbop, New Orleans R & B or funk. Harrison has managed to forge his variegated influences and extensive experience into a uniquely personal style. These discs feature the Art Blakey alumnus with two different groups - one comprised of three capable, comparatively young newcomers; the other with a pair of seasoned veterans. On both dates the altoistâ€™s creativity is commanding.
Free Style is, as its title implies, Harrisonâ€™s amalgamation of jazz improvisation with funky hip hop rhythms. The youthful accompanying trio of pianist Glen Patscha, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lamkin is well suited to the contemporary music, the melodic and harmonic simplicity of which allows the leader ample space to improvise freely. The disc opens with â€œHand Jiveâ€ (not the credited Tony Williams composition from the Miles Davis Nefertiti album but the Johnny Otis rock â€˜nâ€™ roll classic). Harrison transforms the popular piece, taking it uncharacteristically soft and slow, with Patschaâ€™s moody chords altering it to more of a dirge. The Harrison composed title track, a spare trio dance with the altoist getting down on top of Archerâ€™s insistent bass line and Lamkinâ€™s steady drumbeat, lives up to its rap influenced name. â€œNew Hopeâ€ is an exquisitely beautiful ode to optimism by the quartet. â€œGet Your Swerve,â€ another funky trio performance, has some interesting twists, while the quartetâ€™s soulful interpretation of â€œSo Whatâ€ is an alto tour de force played over a backbeat. The collectively composed â€œRock Song,â€ covers of â€œWell You Neednâ€™tâ€ and â€œIko Ikoâ€ and Harrisonâ€™s â€œFree To Beâ€ follow similar routes. The disc is filled out with two pieces from Harrisonâ€™s Heroes CDâ€”worthwhile alternate takes of that dateâ€™s title track and Ron Carterâ€™s â€œCandlelight.â€
New York Cool: Live at the Blue Note
Carter and Billy Cobham join Harrison on New York Cool, a landmark disc for the saxophonist, recorded live at the Blue Note. The date is a model of creative construction and group dynamics on which the absence of a chordal instrument only serves to emphasize the three musiciansâ€™ individual and collective strengths. Harrison and Cobham begin â€œBody and Soulâ€ as a duo, so that when Carter comes in on top of the bossa beat the group sounds larger than the trio it is. The band burns through the rhythm changes of â€œHarrisburg Address,â€ a line by the leader reminiscent of â€œThe Themeâ€ from his Jazz Messengers days. The bluesy minimalism of â€œEasy Livingâ€ hearkens to Ornette while â€œIâ€™ll Remember Aprilâ€ and â€œStar Eyesâ€ boppishly speak to Bird. Carterâ€™s â€œThird Planeâ€ is truly a modern masterpiece and Harrisonâ€™s closing down home â€œBlues For Happy Peopleâ€ is a pure and simple pleasure. The satisfied audienceâ€™s screaming ovation says it all.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Hand Jive; Free Style; New Hope; Get Your Swerve; So What; Rock Song; Well You Needn't; Iko Iko; Free to Be; Heroes; Candlelight
Personnel: Donald Harrison: alto saxophone; Glen Patscha: piano (1,3,5); Vicente Archer: bass; John Lamkin: drums. On bonus tracks: Ron Carter: bass (10,11); Billy Cobham: drums (10,11).
New York Cool
Tracks: Body and Soul; Harrisburg Address; Easy Living; I'll Remember April; Star Eyes; Third Plane; Blues for Happy People.
Personnel: Donald Harrison: alto saxophone; Ron Carter: bass; Billy Cobham: drums.
Alto saxophonist Harrison delivers a Smooth Jazz album of the highest quality. From Smooth Jazz instrumentals like 'Magic Touch', 'Chillin At The Penthouse' and 'Now Is The Time' It is however on the Soul orientated tracks such as his version of R Kelly's 'Step In The Name Of Love' and the gorgeous mid-tempo smoocher 'You Love Me Back' that the album is elevated into stratosphere. One of the best Smooth albums this year.
Pop/Jazz; A New Orleans Tribe Showing Its Colors
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By PETER WATROUS
Published: September 13, 1991
"I always liked parading with the Indians because when I was young, I would sew different bead patches -- I really like to do it," Mr. Harrison said. "I masked, which is what we call parading, when I was a little kid, but my father quit when I was young, and I left New Orleans eventually to study music. But he decided to get back into it recently, and I joined him." Learning the Traditions
"I love getting back into it," he said. "A lot of guys think of it religiously. It is what they are, and people spend all their money putting together costumes. It has become part of who I am again, which makes me happy. As an African-American, you sort of feel you don't have any roots, because we don't know ourselves as a culture. When I started masking Indian again I saw I had roots and I could really feel where I came from. The tribes are some of the most important cultural entities in America."
Not that Mr. Harrison is alone. For a while the membership in Indian tribes was declining. But as regionalism and interest in all things from New Orleans grew, the Indian tribes started a rebirth. One tribe even has a Swiss member.
"A lot more people are coming in and trying to learn the traditions," Mr. Harrison said. "This year during Mardi Gras I saw a lot more people masking than usual, at least three times as many as usual. There are a lot of older Indians who are coming back. Where the Creole Wild West was down to just a few members, it now has about 20 to 30 Indians, which is how it used to be.
"There was a point where Baptists said this type of music and jazz was devil's music. Jazz musicians themselves would look down on it. It was thought of as ignorant music. People didn't understand the significance of the culture. Some things take a long time, I guess, and I'm just glad things are changing."
DONALD HARRISON 3D Fomp Records
Sax man Donald Harrison's finally done another Smooth Jazz album, and it's awesome. It's been 12 years since his "The Power of Cool" was released, and that music has been part of virtually every Smooth Jazz radio station's library ever since. When you hear the new one, you'll be very pleased. It's always a pleasure to hear a true jazz musician play Smooth Jazz, and Donald Harrison demonstrates the point superbly. His background and experience are exceptional, and his abiding respect for jazz and its traditions shines through in every track. His distinctive alto glides through the tunes, most of them Donald Harrison originals, like a warm knife through butter. The first single, "The Magic Touch," is perfect for the format, and features Chris Botti and Chuck Loeb. You'll also love "Eddie Palmieri," which features the title's namesake on piano! I started checking the titles off that I thought would be strong for airplay as I listened, and ended up literally checking them all...it's really that outstanding a Smooth Jazz project. Harrison, who's a New Orleans native and an alumnus of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, was working on this album last year when Katrina struck and halted production, but in the storm's aftermath he was inspired to complete it...showcasing the triumph of the human spirit. Donald Harrison's 3D is also a showcase of the artistry of one of the best jazz sax men playing today. This one is not to be missed!~SCOTT O'BRIEN
Jazz standards to New orleans Funk - "FANTASTIC!", August 29, 1999
Reviewer: A music fan
If like the Alto sax,Donald "Duck" Harrisons' the man for you.It's hard,no impossible to believe this guy has'nt hit the "BIG TIME" yet, although one knows it's only a matter of time.Free to be is in my humble opinion his finest offering yet,a wonderful blend of Trad Jazz and New Orleans Funk that has you tapping your feet one minute and drifting off into adream the next.Influences such as James Brown,Charlie Parker,Grover Washington .Jr and David Sanborn are apparent,but who have'nt those guys influenced? All in all a great album which has left me eagerly anticipating his next offering.
GOOD JAZZ., July 14, 1999
Reviewer: A music fan
I think Donald Harrison is an excellant sax player Mr.Cool Breeze is the best song on the recording. Slowvisor is a really good chaser. This music is worth checking out if your Feelin' Jazzy, Baby!
Phenomenal, April 12, 1999
Reviewer: A music fan
Donald Harrison has done it again! Ryhthmic and catchy with great riffs and expanded solos, Free to Be is a must..
â€œHave you ever seen people build a home?â€ Donald Harrison asked a roomful of teenagers one Monday night in September at The Music Shed studio in the Garden District of New Orleans. â€œWell, you start with the foundation. And then youâ€™ve got the support beams. If all thatâ€™s not intact, it wonâ€™t matter what you do â€” the whole thing will come crashing down.â€
Harrison was instructing local high-school and junior-high students, interns in an education program sponsored by the Tipitinaâ€™s Foundation, a nonprofit organization developed by one of the cityâ€™s iconic clubs. His point was the importance of mastering fundamentals before moving on to the inventive improvisation that makes jazz â€” like most New Orleans music â€” special.
Harrison knows a great deal about constructing a solo and, these days, whether he likes it or not, a thing or two about building a house. Like so many of his New Orleans neighbors, the first floor of his home in the Broadmoor section is stripped to its beams. By now, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the failure of the levees and the subsequent floods, seem nearly a distant memory: the nights spent sleeping in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency; the difficulty of relocating to Baton Rouge; the first trip back to find his own home seriously damaged and his childhood house, where his mother still lived, mostly torn apart.
Stick to the â€œSliver by the River,â€ the high-ground neighborhoods along the Mississippiâ€™s banks, and you might think New Orleans is healing. Take a taxi from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter, and youâ€™ll find scant evidence of Katrinaâ€™s wrath. But New Orleans is two cities now â€” one inching toward renewal, the other waiting for funding or any clear direction to the future. Favorite clubs still host favorite bands, but many of the musicians now travel from Atlanta or Baton Rouge for gigs. The culture that inspired and still shapes the sound of American music â€” in the form of jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-liners, and neighborhood brass bands â€” remains stuck in some painful limbo.
On a corner across the street from Harrisonâ€™s home, the elegant front faÃ§ade is all that remains of another home, leaning precariously against three support beams. Thatâ€™s what this city is like now â€” a shell of its former, historically significant self in need of preservation, teetering on the brink of utter collapse, yet still flashing beautiful details. Musicians like Harrison are back in New Orleans, working to rebuild their personal lives as well as the cultural landscape from which they sprang.
At 46, Harrison is in a position to grasp and address this crisis more completely than most musicians because his life and career embrace so much of what defines New Orleans culture. In his early teens, he began playing saxophone with Ernest â€œDocâ€ Paulinâ€™s brass band, a seminal group for generations of players. He studied at New Orleans Center for Cultural Arts (NOCCA), the finishing school for a long list of jazz stars. He played in Art Blakeyâ€™s Jazz Messengers, co-led a band with another hometown hero, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and, later, became an important voice in Eddie Palmieriâ€™s blend of salsa and jazz. An established jazz star who spent much of the 1980s and â€™90s in New York City, Harrison is nonetheless best-known to some in his hometown as a Mardi Gras Indian chief and the son of Donald Harrison Sr., who was himself a Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
â€œThe Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and chants were really the very first music that entered my consciousness,â€ Harrison said while sitting on the front stoop of his gutted home, squinting in the midday sun. â€œMy mom remembers me tapping out the beats on the side of my crib.â€ But Harrison didnâ€™t see the link between that formative influence and his modern-jazz career until the late â€™80s, when he began participating with his father in those Mardi Gras Indian events heâ€™d experienced as a child.
â€œI didnâ€™t get the connection until I started coming out with the Indians again and my dad was singing [the traditional song] â€˜Shallow Water.â€™ In the back of my head, I started hearing Art Blakeyâ€™s drums. And I thought â€˜Wow, this is all starting to make sense.â€™â€ In 1991, Harrison recorded Indian Blues (Candid) â€” still the most intriguing combination of jazz and Mardi Gras Indian music Iâ€™ve heard â€” with musicians ranging from Cyrus Chestnut to Dr. John to Donald Harrison, Sr.
After his fatherâ€™s death in 1988, Harrison became a Mardi Gras Indian chief and named his tribe Congo Nation in reference to New Orleansâ€™ Congo Square, the one place in the United States where, during slave days, displaced Africans were allowed to play their native drums. The legacy of black New Orleans residents dressing up like Native Americans and parading on Mardi Gras Day dates back more than a century. It perpetuates not just an African consciousness, but, through costumes and other vestiges of American Indian culture, a bond with another oppressed and unappreciated people.
Harrisonâ€™s childhood in the 9th Ward was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting â€” that is, if youâ€™re talking about â€œThe Problem We All Live With,â€ Rockwellâ€™s 1964 rendering of a 6-year-old black girl being led into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, the first such integration in Louisiana. Harrison, who was born in 1960, attended Frantz. He understands the music he was born into as a primary statement of African-American pride. â€œIn America people of African descent are taught that where we came from is nothing. We have a day to celebrate Irish-American pride, St. Patrickâ€™s Day, and a great parade in New York to celebrate Italian-American heritage. We have to come to grips that people of African descent are important, too. The pageantry of the Mardi Gras Indians means something.â€
When Harrison hears people speak today about why New Orleans should not be rebuilt, he hears the comment as another negation he just canâ€™t accept. â€œThatâ€™s like someone saying â€˜Your home and your culture donâ€™t matter.â€™ But we do, and people need to recognize and honor that. Every time I wear the feathers and beads as a Mardi Gras chief, every time I pick up my saxophone and play, every hour I spend with a student, is my response.â€
â€œDonald embodies what it means to be a New Orleans musician in terms of historical roots, traditional and modern jazz, and all of the other styles,â€ said Tipitinaâ€™s Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor. â€œWhen we were looking for someone to work with students, we wanted a musician who knew what it meant to grow up here and to succeed on the national stage but who also spoke the language of a New Orleans kid â€” someone who was proud of all of that, and who could share that pride.â€
Harrisonâ€™s nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, remembers the giddy excitement he felt as a boy each time his Uncle Donald came to visit. But when Scott approached Harrison about playing trumpet, the games were over. â€œHe was hard on me,â€ said Scott. â€œHe set the bar high and expected a lot right away. Without saying so, it was as if he was telling me, â€˜We come from a place where thereâ€™s a standard and a code that you must uphold.â€™ I got the message: If I wanted to be a part of this important chain, I could not be a weak link.â€
Harrison likes to return to the moment he first heard Blakeyâ€™s drums in his head when his father sang. â€œI stopped thinking of music in boxes,â€ he says. Heâ€™s held on to that sense as a defining characteristic of his inherited New Orleans legacy, not to mention his musical future. After the hurricane, he raised money to complete a new album leading an electric band, 3D: Volume 1 (FOMP Records), which includes among its guest artists both Eddie Palmieri and Chris Botti. â€œPeople will call this smooth jazz,â€ Harrison said, â€œbut I donâ€™t care.â€ His recent disc, The Survivor (Nagel Heyer), with Scott among the cast, features a wildly unorthodox version of the standard â€œCaravanâ€ that employs LP scratching and looped rhythms.
The last time I saw Harrison, in October, he was in the front yard of his childhood home. The house is uninhabitable. Harrisonâ€™s mother, Herreast, lives in a trailer, temporarily stationed next to the house until repairs are complete. The filmmaker Jonathan Demme and a small crew were there, filming the Harrisons for a documentary that centers in part on the hardships theyâ€™ve endured since Katrina, and the familyâ€™s centrality in New Orleans culture. Harrisonâ€™s mother stood on the step of her trailer and recalled the day, decades ago, that Donald Harrison Sr. came home from Werleinâ€™s Music Store, where, on a whim, he bought a saxophone for his son. Donald picked up his current alto horn and played some of â€œAmazing Graceâ€ â€” and swung it hard, as he might have played it in a brass band, while in his teens.
A few minutes later, Harrison grabbed a tambourine and, with his sister, Cara, and a nephew, Kiel, by his side singing along, underscored the Mardi Gras Indian traditional â€œTwo-Way-Pocky-Wayâ€ with that same rhythm. His mother stood proudly, watching the scene unfold on a block lined with empty houses of undetermined fate. When he finished singing, Harrison put down his tambourine and looked into Demmeâ€™s camera.
â€œIâ€™m going to continue to be a Mardi Gras Indian,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But thatâ€™s the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?â€