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Harold Danko: His Own Sound, His Own Time

Jakob Baekgaard By

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I am in a long-term process of trying to master the many recipes of rhythm, melody, and harmony that go into composing and improvising—still providing many pleasures and challenges! —Harold Danko
The famous sculptor, Henry Moore, hit the nail on the head when he said: "there's no retirement for an artist, it's your way of living so there's no end to it." This statement certainly rings true in the case of pianist and composer, Harold Danko. Even though he has retired from a long and distinguished career as a music teacher and now holds Professor Emeritus status at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, the school where he chaired the jazz studies program for eleven years, he has entered a new phase in his life that has made it possible to focus solely on his own music. But make no mistake, Danko has already lived life to the fullest on the bandstand and has played with Thad Jones, Chet Baker, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, just to name a few.

Danko is also a prolific composer and has an expansive discography as a leader and his track record with the Danish SteepleChase label is impressive. Among solo recitals and quartet offerings, it includes the distinctive trio releases with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, Lost in the Breeze (2016) and Triple Play (2017). While he has arrived at his own sound, there's still a sense of adventurousness and discovery about Danko's approach to music and one of his latest albums, Playdate, released in March 2019, finds him in a duo setting with the progressive trumpeter, Kirk Knuffke.

It's not a new thing that Danko delves into the edgy corners of jazz. For instance, he made an homage to saxophonist, Eric Dolphy, with the album Prestigious (2001). Danko is fundamentally a deeply lyrical and swinging pianist, who combines the virtues of inside and outside playing, and he is still perfecting his music, learning new ways of approaching it. It's a process that started long time ago.

All About Jazz: I've read that you started studying piano at the age of five, but what is your first memory of playing the piano and is your discovery of music connected particularly to this instrument?

Harold Danko: A spinet piano came into our house because my oldest brother, Joe, a clarinetist and saxophonist, was a music student in college and needed it for his studies. My first memories were of trying to plink out tunes and Joe showing me where middle C was on the piano and also on the music staff. I started lessons some time later at a music store in Sharon, PA with Mrs. Polangan, who was European, probably at 7 or 8. These lasted a few years and included mostly classical music. I remember that my teacher was really impressed by my playing of a boogie woogie piece and had me play it for some customers in the store.

AAJ: Did you grow up in a musical family with a history of playing the piano?

HD: My family was musical, but the piano was a new thing for us. My father played button accordion in Slovak traditional style and my mother was very musical and sang. My brother John also played saxophone and clarinet professionally, as did Joe.

AAJ: You started studying very early. Did you find it a challenge to keep the sense of fun that is often associated with playing an instrument without any rules or did studying enhance your appreciation of the music from the beginning?

HD: I was not a particularly good student, but Mrs. Polangan had me doing some challenging repertoire after some time. I can't remember doing any formal recitals, and always resisted practicing. I became known for my singing in elementary school and sang in two operettas in 5th and 6th grade in my school. Since I was a boy soprano, I could not wait for my voice to change, so I stopped singing in 7th grade until I sang in my high school chorus, mainly because there were a lot of girls in the chorus. I never followed through on singing except for college requirements.

AAJ: What kind of music did you play then? Was jazz already in the picture?

HD: I always tried to improvise and heard jazz in my house from my brothers' 78 rpm records. Stan Getz, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and others as well as polka records that my father liked, and of course lots of popular music on the radio. I heard my brothers practicing standard tunes as a very young child although both were away in the army in the early 1950s and then married and moved out by the time I was about 8 and taking piano lessons. They would both come over and play tunes with me as I learned standard tunes from chords, but that was probably when I was about 12. In the mean time I heard lots of rock and roll on TV (American Bandstand) and radio and loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and most of the rest of the early stuff in that genre. I also stopped taking piano lessons for a time and then started again at maybe 11.

AAJ: You mention you stopped taking piano lessons for a while. Were you ever in doubt that the piano was the right instrument for you and the best way of expressing your musicality?

HD: I thought about drums a lot, and bought an old trumpet and taught myself how to play it. I played the baritone horn (euphonium) in junior high school. I tried to play bass seriously in my college years and even played some gigs on it, but piano was always the fall back, and seemed a logical instrument to play, since the notes were all there in black and white under your fingers. The other instruments seemed harder and the piano did become the best way for me to express my musicality over time.

AAJ: You also express your musicality as a composer. Do you think that your approach to composition is influenced by the piano and how do you see the limits and advantages of the piano as a compositional tool?

HD: I always fooled around with and changed certain pieces I played, and the piano lent itself to this experimentation, even early on in my studies.

AAJ: Where do you find inspiration to write?

HD: I need unstructured time for sure.

AAJ: Do you get inspired by other art forms to write music? For instance, have you written music to a film or could a piece of architecture, a book or a painting inspire you to compose?

HD: Not really—it is mostly about sounds that I am drawn to and how to put them together.

AAJ: How do you see the difference between composition and improvisation? What is most important to you?

HD: They are two sides of the same coin. For me improvising leads to composition, but then the composition facilitates further improvisation, and that keeps the piece alive for me.

AAJ: Could you talk about your process of composing and highlight some of the compositions that have been important to you, or marked a musical breakthrough in your development?

HD: My own body of work reflects and documents the range of my musical interests in a loose kind of chronology. There are a number of pieces, early on, that clearly indicate my interest in quartal and quintal harmonic structures and what I came to known in atonal set theory as an "0,2,7" set or trichord. McCoy Tyner played quartal and 027 structures that grabbed my ear but he did not explore the related aspect of quintal structures, which are found in some of Bela Bartok's work and in the music from the television series "Outer Limits" from the early 60s, which influenced me in those years.

My pieces, "Mirth Song," "Spinning Waltz," "Intensity," "Pastoral Landing," and "Soaring Thru Space," all from the late 60s/early 70s, document this. My comfort with improvising in this sound world took some time however, so the "young composer from Ohio" was definitely ahead of the NYC jazz pianist making his way in NYC during the 70s. Later on, as I worked with Rich Perry and formed a working quartet in the late 80s and as a reaction to the simplistic "new age" music that has taken hold of many listeners, I entered what I refer to as my "new age aftermath" period. This is documented in many pieces from my CDs Next Age and New Autumn and in others on various recordings throughout the 90s and beyond. My work in this period is characterised by attempts to utilize more challenging harmonic, rhythmic, and linear concepts gathered from sources like Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Dutch composer Peter Schat, as well as from influences of Indian and other world musics. Pieces like "Notzenytes," "Omniperception," and "Sizzle" are representative of this as well as some of my suite "Nightscapes." A pianist from Vienna, Julia Radschiner, did an analysis of "Nightscapes" for her master's degree thesis.

Another device I use is based the piano mirror concept and the resultant harmonic and pianistic possibilities. I got into this this from some technical exercises of pianist Rudolf Ganz and certain compositions of Vincent Persichetti. My pieces like "Hopelessness Regained," "Smoke House," and "Madison and West End" are examples of how I incorporated this idea. In the early part of this century I was able to write more than 30 articles for Keyboard Magazine where I explained many of my compositional and improvisational processes, and I have used a lot of my pieces, especially the modal/scalular ones ("Blue Swedish Wildflower," "To Start Again," "Waiting Time") and more tune-like pieces ("Tidal Breeze," "New Autumn," "When She Smiles") as examples for students to understand my path as improvisor/ composer and to help them in their own studies. In the course of doing this I have developed a methodology that seems to illuminate the processes involved.
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