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Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone

By Published: January 23, 2007
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 music—our 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?

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