Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone
“ I knew long before I started playing saxophone that I wanted to play saxophone. ”
Tenor saxophonist Harry Allen was born in Washington, D.C. in 1966, but he grew up in California and Rhode Island. His father was a drummer who played jazz records for Allen before kindergarten, and that early exposure set the course for his professional life. Unlike many saxophonists of his generation, Allen chose not to emulate John Coltrane's sound, choosing a mellower path. The result? Decades of touring the world and recording albums. His latest album is called Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors, 2006). All About Jazz's Jason Crane talked with Harry Allen in December 2006, following Allen's two-night stand with the Bob Sneider quartet at the Strathallan Hotel in Rochester, NY.
All About Jazz: I heard you live for the first time last night, and was surprised by how organically connected to this music you seem to be, and how much obvious joy you take in playing it. Is that your dad's influence?
Harry Allen: I think you're absolutely right on both counts. First of all, my dad started playing records for me when I was very young, so I really grew up listening to this kind of music. I learned to love it so much that when I finally was at an age where I was hanging out with kids who were listening to rock and roll, I heard it and thought, "What the hell is that? That doesn't compare in any way to what I'm hearing at home." So I really did grow up with it.
My dad was a professional drummer. He'd gone into engineering by the time I was born, but he was real big on instilling into my sister and I a love of music and the thought that the music is something special and it should be treated as something special.
AAJ: Many kids reject their parents' music because that's how you establish your own identity. You've done exactly the opposite. You embraced your dad's music and made it your own. Why do think that's what happened?
HA: I was not a very typical kid in a lot of ways. I have a rebellious side in me, but it wasn't against my parents. Maybe some of that had to do with the fact that you don't start to rebel until you're a little older. I was listening to music very, very young. Another strange thing is that I didn't hang out with a lot of friends. Some, but not a lot, because I figuredeven back then as a little kidI figured that if I spent my time practicing, then I'd have more fun later on in life, rather than going out and having fun then and not getting accomplished what I wanted to get accomplished musically.
AAJ: You first took accordion lessons, right?
HA: Yeah. I started playing accordion when a guy knocked on the door selling accordion lessons, believe it or not, when I was 7 years old. That may be another reason why I didn't rebelI never thought it was pushed on me by my parents. They didn't start the lessonsthe guy knocking on the door started the lessons. Then I started playing clarinet at 11 and switched to saxophone at 12.
AAJ: Did your dad have a set of drums in the house when you were growing up?
HA: Yes. He started playing again when my sister and I started playing. But he had drums around. I used to fool around with the drums. He also played a little bit of cornet, so I would fool around with the cornet.
AAJ: When you first picked up a saxophone, were you playing concert band music in the school you were in?
HA: Yeah, but I was already playing jazz on the accordion. It's funnyI knew long before I started playing saxophone that I wanted to play saxophone. My dad said, "You should play clarinet first, because it's easier to switch than if you go the other way." So I did that because it was the right thing to do, but I didn't want to. I wanted to play saxophone. I always wanted to play saxophone. I played concert band music in junior high and high school, but at home it was pretty much all jazz.
HA: Rhode Island.
AAJ: By the time you were in high school, did you already know that music was what you wanted to do with your life?
HA: It was either that or baseball. I was a baseball player, and I wanted to do one or the other. By the end of high school, it seemed like I had a better shot making it as a musician than as a baseball player.
AAJ: So you went to Rutgers and studied jazz saxophone, and you got to study with some cool people.
HA: I did. It's funny, but I picked the school for one reason only. I didn't really care who was teaching there, because going to music school was not my main purpose. I thought it was good to get a degree in anything. It's good to have a college degreeit's just a good thing. But I didn't want to go to a music school that was going to keep me busy. If I had gone to Berklee [College of Music in Boston], I know you're in rehearsal bands all day long and you're really busy with the music program. I wanted a music program that would be easy so I could go into New York City and listen to the guys I wanted to hear.
That's what I did. I'd do all my classes, then I'd hop on the train and go to New York. At that time, more so than nowNew York still has more music than anywhere else, I thinkbut at that time, I remember one night I heard [trumpeter] Warren Vache in one club, then walked one block over and heard [trumpeter] Harry "Sweets" Edison, then walked another block over and heard [saxophonist] Phil Woods. So I'd spend my time hanging out and listening to [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet and [drummer] Buddy Rich and all sorts of people.
AAJ: You were getting your Bachelor's degree during the day and your doctoral degree at night.
HA: Right. In fact, that's how my career got started, sitting in with people. Then I started to get work. By the end of college, I almost dropped out, just because I was busy enough working and it was tough getting up in the morning to go to class. I had to be talked into staying.
AAJ: The sax teachers when you were at Rutgers included Sahib Shihab from [bassist] Charles Mingus's band.
HA: [Saxophonists] Sahib Shihab, Bob Mintzer, Horace Young III and Mark Kirk. We had a different one every year.
AAJ: When did you graduate?
HA: I graduated in 1988.
AAJ: Is there a [bassist] Major Holley connection to your first recording?
HA: Actually, my first recording came through [pianist] Kenny Barron, who was the piano instructor at Rutgers. He got me on as the saxophone on a record he was doing with a singer named Bobby Norris. But I had met Major Holley when I was in high school. He was very nice and very supportive. He let me sit in with him.
HA: At the Newport Jazz Festival. I played a couple of years at the Newport Jazz Festival with an all-star high school band. We opened the festival. It was great. I got to see [singer] Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich's band, [saxophonist] Zoot Sims, the [drummer] Mel Lewis Vanguard Orchestra, all sorts of great people. So I met Major there and also [drummer] Oliver Jackson. Major hired me for some of my earliest gigs, and then Oliver Jackson took me on the road and toured all around Europe with me several times.
AAJ: And this is when you were what age?
HA: Oliver waited until I was out of college. He was a stickler for that. He said, "You've got to finish school." So he waited until I was out of college and then took me on the road. It was a great experience from several points of view. First of all, he wanted to teach me about the music business and being on the road. He was great at knowing how to travel. He was great musically, too. He taught me all sorts about what to do. "When the singer gets on the stage, put out your hand and help her on the stage." All those little things you don't think about. "Why are you standing there? Don't stand there, you're blocking the bassist."
His main intent was to teach me and to introduce me to promoters. Everywhere we played, he'd have the promoter come over and he'd say, "I want you to remember this name, you're going to want him." Even today, 20 years later, 90% of my work in Europe can be directly traced to those early tours with Oliver Jackson.
AAJ: Why do you think he took such an interest in you?
HA: He was just that sort of guy. He liked taking young musicians who he thought had what it took. He didn't do it just with mehe did it with the flautist Ali Ryerson and [drummer] Ali Jackson, who was his nephew. He was just a real good guy.
AAJ: What did you think of that first road experience? Was it what you had imagined?
HA: It was great. One tour we did was two and a half months long, all around Europe. One time we took a train from Vienna to Paris to Calais, where you take the ferry over to England, and then the train from the coast of England to London. It took 29 hours. We got to see all sorts of great things, play in castlesit was really neat.
AAJ: What size band were you traveling with?
HA: It was trumpet, saxophone, guitar, piano, bass and drums.
AAJ: Do you remember who was in the band?
HA: The trumpet player was Johnny Coles.
AAJ: So you had two Mingus connections.
HA: Dicky Thompson was the guitarist, Claude Black played piano, Pierre Boussaguet played bass.
AAJ: When you came back from that trip, what happened next?
HA: I just continued to try to work in New York. I was really fortunate that a lot of people helped me out. [Guitarist] Bucky Pizzarelli helped me out a great deal, and [guitarist/vocalist] John Pizzarelli. I was working a lot with John Pizzarelli, who was a few years older than me but not that much older.
AAJ: He was still emerging.
HA: Yeah. We were doing a lot of weddings and parties. In fact, somebody came up to me here last night [in Rochester, NY] and said they saw me at Ryan's in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1984, playing with John Pizzarelli. That's how I met John Pizzarellihe was playing in a club a block away from my dormitory.
So I was just around New York, trying to work as much as I could. Bucky Pizzarelli brought me down and had me play a couple tunes at a rehearsal with [clarinetist] Benny Goodman. [Saxophonist] Scott Hamilton let me sit in wherever he was playing.
AAJ: Last night, the band you played with here in Rochester included bassist Phil Flanagan, who played and recorded with Scott Hamilton. I assume you two had met before?
AAJ: Is that how you ended up playing here in Rochester?
HA: Probably. I met the rest of the guys in the band when they popped into a gig I do in New York every Monday with my band at a place called Zuni. So they popped in and I met everybody. But I'm sure that without Phil, they wouldn't have known me.
The Harry Allen - Joe Cohn Quartet: Chuck Riggs, Joe Cohn, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes
AAJ: So you've come back from Europe and you're getting gigs. When did you make your first recording as a leader?
HA: I don't remember whether it was before the tours with Oliver Jackson. I think it was with Oliver Jackson and Major Holley. I was somewhere around 20 or 21 years old. [Allen's first album was How Long Has This Been Going On? (Progressive, 1988).]
AAJ: What was that feeling like, stepping into the studio and knowing that the project was going to come out with your name on it?
HA: It was really nerve-wracking. I remember saying to Major Holley, "Do I sound a little nervous? Does my saxophone sound a little nervous?" He was a big, gruff guy, and he said, "Well, do you feel nervous?" I said, "Yeah!"
AAJ: Since that time, you've recorded more than 20 records.
HA: I'm probably up around 30-something. I've done 22 for BMG alone.
AAJ: The newest one is called Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors Records, 2006). It features your regular band with guitarist Joe Cohn. How did you and Joe Cohn first meet up?
HA: I first saw him when I was in high school. He went to Berklee and lived in Boston for many years. I saw him play at a club in Boston, and I really didn't like his playing. He had a lot of notes, and I was really young and I'm sure his playing was going completely over my head. And then, maybe 10 years later, I happened to be on a gig with him at a Nordstrom's around Christmas time. We immediately realized that we liked playing together. So we started playing more and more.
AAJ: What is it in particular that you like about the sound of your band?
HA: There's a couple things sound-wise that I really like about the band. First of all, aside from the guitar amp, we play acoustically. The bassist [Joel Forbes] doesn't use an amp and he uses gut strings. He's got a big, natural sound. The gut strings and the lack of an amp lessen the sustain on the notes of the bass. As soon as you add an amp, the notes sustain more.
So you combine that with Chuck Riggs, who's a drummer who really knows how to play in the style that we like to play. And you combine that with the fact that we have a guitar, which sound-wise just takes up less room than a piano. The pianist has 10 fingers and is using most of them most of the time, and the guitar can't hit that many notes.
There's a lot of space in the musicour band has a lot of space in it. I think that's something that's really missing in most of the bands that are playing today. Listen to the Count Basie band. It's a big band, but there's so much space in that music. Space makes it. It makes all the notes mean more.
AAJ: A lot of bands say they play "in the Basie style," but the thing they're often missing is that the Basie band could play so slow, with so much space between the notes, but still swing you off the floor.
HA: Absolutely. Count Basie didn't play that much when he was comping, a few notes here and there, but it really made it. That's what I love about my band. There's so much space in the music. Without the piano, there's a lot of room to let the music breathe.
AAJ: You've staked out a genre within the world of jazz, but you came up at a time when the people right before you had staked out a totally different territory. I'm thinking of Coltrane and then the loft scene. Was it the music you listened to as a child that's caused you to identify with the style of music you play now?
HA: I'm sure it all has to do with my learning to love that sort of music so deeply as a kid. I think I have a lot wider influence than people realize. I've listened to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and I love classical composers who combine inside with outside. Ravel is a good example. It's not immediately apparent in my playing, because I have that older sort of sound, but I think there's a wide scope played with a fairly old sound.
AAJ: Do you spend most of your time on the road these days?
HA: I'm probably about 75% on the road.
AAJ: Is that mostly with the band with Joe?
HA: More and more we're going on the road with that band, which is great, but I do a lot of other things, like being here [in Rochester] with these guys. I was just in Kansas City playing with a local band there. They've got some great musicians in Kansas City.
AAJ: Your band is a working band. What's the difference in playing together all the time?
HA: I think we're different from a lot of working bands. A lot of working bands have a repertoire and they sort of stick to that, which drives me crazy. We do a lot of tunes that [Joe Cohn's father, saxophonist] Al Cohn wrote, that Zoot and Al did. We do a lot of that stuff, and we have some original things where we have actual arrangements. We do those, but we don't do those exclusively by any means. We throw a couple arrangements into a set, and the rest of the time we're just making it up as we go.
Because we work together so much, we know each other's playing so well. The guys know that I'm likely to throw in anything at any time, so everybody's aware. I'll change keys without telling them and they'll just have to hear that I'm doing it. But they know I do that. And Joe Cohn is just such a fabulous musician, such a great guitarist. We'll play shout choruses and people in the audience will swear that it's something we've worked out, but it's not. He's just following me. That's how good he is. I can play a shout chorus and he's right on it with me practically the first time I do it.
HA: At the end of a tune, you play a chorus that's not the melody, but it's some sort of repetitive figure that's meant to get the audience riled up. Joe will just jump in and play harmony with me and it sounds like an arrangement. He knows my playing inside and out and I know his playing inside and out. Sometimes when we're playing counterpoint together, we're listening intently to each other and we'll start playing the same notes. Then we try to make our lines a little less obvious so we're not playing the same notes, and sometimes when we do that we're still playing the same notes.
AAJ: That must be an amazing feeling.
HA: Absolutely. And another great thing about Joe Cohn is that no matter what note I play, he'll make it work in the chord. He'll find a way to make it work. Sometimes I'll play the strangest note I can think of just to see how he'll make it work, and he always makes it work.
AAJ: It sounds like you guys really have a sense of humor on stage.
HA: When we're on the road together, we laugh on stage, offstageit's a lot of fun.
AAJ: While you were in town here, did you also do a workshop?
HA: I did a master class and worked with a couple different bands at Eastman [School of Music].
AAJ: Do you do a lot of that?
HA: I do some of that. I wouldn't say a lot. I'm not like [trumpeter] Wynton [Marsalis], but I do some. I was impressedthe students [here] were all very talented and genuine, which students are not always. I was very impressed with that. And another thing that impressed me: When I went to college, I was the only one who was trying to get a mellow sound on the saxophone. In two days here, I heard three or four saxophone players who've got really mellow, nice, round sounds, obviously going for something other than a John Coltrane sound. Evidently times are a little different now.
AAJ: Maybe the pendulum is swinging back.
HA: I'm sure that those same kids are very into John Coltrane. When I was in school there was sort of a feeling like "John Coltrane is hip and nobody else is." That's certainly not the case. John Coltrane is hip and so is Coleman Hawkins. It seems maybe there's an acceptance that all styles are relevant.
AAJ: Did you find it difficult, when you were developing that mellow sound, to get work, since you were playing in a style that every other young lion wasn't going for?
HA: Actually, just the opposite. I think it's helped me all throughout my career, probably for several reasons. One, there aren't that many people. Two, the people that were around, the old timers that were around are all gone, with the exception of [saxophonist] Frank Wess who's still around from that era. So pretty quickly I found myself as one of a handful of people who do that. I also think it's a style that your average person, not a musician, finds listenable and likes. So I think there's a fair amount of work for that sort of style and not many people doing it.
AAJ: What keeps you coming back again and again? What makes it fun to be up on stage every night?
HA: Like Lester Young used to do, I never try to play something the same way. Nothing drives me crazy like a gig where I have to play the same set every set, which sometimes happens. I hate that. I like to do it differently and find new things to do and make it interesting. If it's not interesting for me, I can't see where it would be interesting for anybody listening.
AAJ: Folks can see you Mondays at Zuni in New York. Is the rest of your itinerary on the Web?
HA: It's at HarryAllenJazz.com. That's also the best place to get my CDs, actually. A lot of them are not in the stores.
Harry Allen, Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors, 2006)
Harry Allen, Jazz For The Soul (McMahon Jazz Medicine, 2005)
Harry Allen, Tenors Anyone? (Slider Music, 2004)
Harry Allen, Plays The Musical Hits (Tombstone, 2004)
Harry Allen, Just You, Just Me (BMG, 2003)
Harry Allen, Here's To Zoot (BMG, 2001)
Harry Allen, Love Songs Live! (Nagel-Heyer, 2000)
Harry Allen, Plays Ellington Songs (RCA, 2000)
Harry Allen, I Won't Dance (RCA, 1999)
Harry Allen, Day Dream (RCA, 1999)
Harry Allen, Harry Allen Meets The John Pizzarelli Trio (RCA, 1999)
Harry Allen, Duo (Novus, 1998)
Harry Allen, A Little Touch of Harry (Mastermix, 1997)
Harry Allen, Live At Renouf's (Mastermix, 1996)
Harry Allen, I'll Never Be The Same (Mastermix, 1995)
Harry Allen, Someone To Light Up My Life (Mastermix, 1995)
Harry Allen, I Know That You Know (Mastermix, 1995)
Harry Allen, Blue Skies (John Marks, 1994)
Harry Allen, Celebration of Billy Strayhorn's Music (Progressive, 1994)
Courtesy of Harry Allen