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Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone

By Published: January 23, 2007
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.

AAJ: Explain what a shout chorus is.

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, offstage—it'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 impressed—the 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.

HarryAAJ: 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 That's also the best place to get my CDs, actually. A lot of them are not in the stores.

Selected Discography

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)

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