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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.

AAJ: I read somewhere that the way the standards are composed harmonically make them more open to interpretation than classic pop songs. What do you think it is that makes a composition timeless and do you try to achieve that quality in your own writing?

HD: I don't exactly share the opinion on the standard song repertoire although I love many of them. When players like Chet, Rich Perry, and Lee Konitz play standards they set up an atmosphere that makes it easier for me to create something personal. I have always been more drawn to jazz instrumentals written by jazz players, and this is pretty evident on most of my recordings as a leader. Actually, for me, the rock/soul/funk repertoire from the mid-fifties through the Beatles, and then early Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, and Carol King, as well as Brazilian post bossa nova (MPB) music by composers like Edu Lobo, Ivan Lins, Egberto Gismonti, Francis Hime and others, has more meaning and interesting/varied forms than a lot of the standard song book. But this material is sometimes better left to the original source, rather than adaptation.

I have been involved in some covers of these in various lounge situations and it has never felt satisfying in any respect. It is about the honesty of the performance. In the lounge setting standards or rock covers can seem perfunctory and without real meaning—insincere. I feel that I can perform my own music honestly and also take liberties in the moment. The sound content of my compositions and my present mood will determine a specific performance. Perhaps this and many other and different things could make a piece or a particular performance timeless, rather than dated. I think that the "timeless" element actually depends more on what the listeners get from experiencing the performance, whether live or from a recordings, but there are many different things that could make a piece or a particular performance timeless, rather than dated. Fortunately, I feel that I have been involved in some of these, as a result of the recording process and the honesty of the musicians with whom I have been associated. 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!

AAJ: Records are a way of preserving timeless moments. Could you mention some of the records that you have listened to that have been important for you?

HD: Early on I heard Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt on "Oop Bop Sha Bam" and "That's Earl Brother." When I was about 12, Joe got a stereo system at his house and played Milestones for me. That LP changed my life. He later gave me Kind of Blue for a Christmas present. I was hooked.

AAJ: Speaking of records, I've noticed that you also write your own liner notes. When did you start doing that and how do you see the relationship between words and music?

HD: I sometimes take to writing liner notes or program notes to make my intentions more clear to listeners. I started doing this when I noticed that sometimes others bring their own agenda and I may or not agree.

AAJ: What are good liner notes to you?

HD: Good liner notes or even just announcing at gigs should help get the listener involved with the music.

AAJ: You have played with many different musicians and dedicated albums to the work of other musicians. I would like to hear your take on the following musicians and what they have meant to you?

AAJ: Earl Hines

HD: My favorite improvising jazz pianist because he is unpredictable within his style. Seeing and hearing him at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1977 (I think) was another life changing event for me.

AAJ: Woody Herman

HD: An incredibly important experience for me as a young professional jazz musician (getting in the ring for sure!)

AAJ: Thad Jones

HD: I cannot say enough about him as an inspiration and what he did for me as a musician. Mel Lewis is the other side of that coin and must not be taken for granted. There was an amazing vibe with them, and they brought my musical level up many notches.

AAJ: Chet Baker

HD: My reference point with Chet is always the music, which was from a special place. It was sometimes magical. I am very glad I had a second chance to perform and record with him, especially Tokyo.

AAJ: Eric Dolphy

HD: Another player I heard on Joe's stereo—startling!

AAJ: Lee Konitz

HD: Someone who my older brothers turned me on to, and who kind of became another older musical brother to me. I learned so much from Lee.

AAJ: Wayne Shorter

HD: I have always loved and been inspired by his composing and playing. Speak No Evil is a favorite record of mine and Native Dancer is another important one to me. I met Wayne once through Lee Konitz but don't know him personally.

AAJ: Rich Perry

HD: He has been a real partner to me in a lot of important musical adventures and a deep friend and kind of musical brother.

AAJ: You have been involved with all these strong musical voices, but could you talk about the process of finding your own voice on the piano. What did you take from different musicians and have you arrived at the sound you are searching for, if so, when did that happen?

HD: This has a lot to do with touch. For jazz pianists, Herbie Hancock and Hank Jones are inspirations. On a personal level it is Kirk Lightsey who kills me, since I have gotten the chance to play with and know him.

AAJ: Ernest Hemingway talks about getting in the ring with some of the greatest writers. Which musicians have given you the toughest fight?

HD: I don't know about "toughest fight" but getting in the ring with great players with great personal sounds, like Rich Perry, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Thad Jones, Dick Oatts, Gregory Herbert, among others, have helped me look for my own sound.

AAJ: You mentioned touch earlier. I find that touch is one of those things that fascinates me most about the approach to the piano and as I hear it, you have a distinctive touch that is hard to put into words. Could you talk about what touch is to you and perhaps describe different approaches to touch on the piano?

HD: Touch is everything, as sound production on wind and string instruments is. Classical methodology has given us ways to achieve this, with much practice. It has taken me a long time to get this as a constant in improvisation, since sometimes we are in group settings, and/or with drums at various volume levels. The acoustic piano has a very specific dynamic range, and my teachers, especially in college Robert Hopkins, Morris Risenhoover, and Delores Fitzer made me aware of that for the classical repertoire. I had to find my way as an improvisor, using my training as a reference point.

Playing solo piano on fine instruments in good halls helps one know what the ideal can be. So to actually experience that is another reference point, even if the condition is much less than ideal. I have been fortunate to have experienced very good situations both in performing and recording, and these help balance the situations that are not at that level. It is the same with the levels of musicians I have performed with. As one becomes more mature and experienced it is expected that you bring others up a level, so I hope in some way I do that in my performances, and also in my teaching.

AAJ: You have been a teacher for a very long time. Could you talk about what teaching music means to you?

HD: Passing the torch and communicating about something I love to people who actually want to know about it—and who will pay me.

AAJ: Who have been the most important teachers to you and what is the best advice you have been given?

HD: My brothers and Gene Rush, who was my jazz teacher in Ohio at about 16. Gene told me to transcribe solos, which had never occurred to me.

AAJ: Some might say that the academization of jazz is a bad thing that makes the music more anemic and distant from the tradition of real-life learning on the bandstand. What are your thoughts on this?

HD: I am now "retired" from institutional jazz education and very happy about it. In my "institutional" days I tried my best to bring a bandstand and band bus approach to learning, with healthy respect for methodology that gets results.

AAJ: I would like to get into your discography that can be divided into different phases. What do you recall about your first recording session as a leader for Inner City Records? How did you get a recording contract and what do you remember about the two records that followed in 1979?

HD: I had a great friendship and musical partnership with Gregory Herbert and had recorded a number of demos with him, mostly at the studio of Jimmy Madison, the drummer. In my liner notes to IC 1029 I tell the story of this record that sadly served as a memorial to him. It was Ray Passman that got me the two-record deal with inner City. He was a song writer, lyricist, and publisher who took an early interest in my music.

AAJ: Why did you record Coincidence on a different label (Dreamstreet) the same year you were recording Chasin' the Bad Guys on Inner City Records?

HD: Coincidence was just that—an opportunity to record with a new label, since I had fulfilled my deal with Inner City. I had previously done a sideman date for Dreamstreet with saxophonist Carmen Leggio. The date was more straight ahead and fun to do, especially with Frank Tiberi and Tom Harrell as the front line. I played on some other LPs on Dreamstreet with various artists before they folded—and before the CD era.

AAJ: The next big change happened when you signed to Sunnyside. How did it happen and what stands out about the records you made in that period?

HD: I did the first record for Sunnyside, and Francois Zalacain has somewhere in print told the story of how the label came about. The "relationship" never really ended and he remains a good friend, and recently reissued Shorter by Two. First Love song for Pony Canyon was another one-off opportunity for a new label. It led to some other recordings of solo piano and even Christmas music for the Japan market.

AAJ: You stopped recording for Sunnyside as a leader in 1986 with Alone But Not Forgotten and then there was the album for Pony Canyon in 1988, but then it took five years before you recorded again. How did you experience that period? What happened in your life at that moment? Was it productive for you to take a break from recording as a leader or a dry spell?

HD: There was no "break" from professional work or dry spell, just no opportunities to record as a leader. I kept busy with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan and others and taught a lot. I finally recorded two cassette demos of my own music with my quartet and sent them to a number of my contacts in the business. The only one who responded with an offer to record was Nils Winther, so it has been SteepleChase from then on.

Nils has given me just about complete freedom on my ideas for recordings and to my continual surprise keeps asking me to record. There has never been a real contract, just his interest and support of my various projects over all these years. The quartet recordings with Rich Perry of my music were very important to my identity as a composer/leader. I first met Nils in the late '70s when I did an LP with Lee Konitz for him.

AAJ: During your time with SteepleChase, you have played in a trio with drummer Jeff Hirshfield and bassist Michael Formanek. How would you describe the difference between this trio and your current trio with Hirshfield and bassist Jay Anderson?

HD: Michael and Jay have individual approaches and possibly bring out various aspects of my playing. I don't think about it too much, just knowing that we are compatible. Jay and Scott Colley were on my quartet demos—different sessions but all with Rich Perry and Jeff Hirshfield. I know that these guys will make me sound good, so I just go with the flow. The only difference in my "current" trio is that I am not playing standard themes any more, since I am not an "arranger," so I just use tune frameworks as jumping off points and trust what will come about.

AAJ: One of your latest projects is a duo record with trumpeter Kirk Knuffke that came out in March. Could you tell about this project and how it was to work with Knuffke whose style on the trumpet is very different to Chet Baker, whom you also worked with?

HD: With Kirk it is a very similar approach to my current trio philosophy. Since I did not know Kirk before we met at the date, I had to trust my and his instincts and let the music just happen. The liner notes by Neil Tesser are good and accurately describe what we did. I don't know how to compare him to Chet except to say that they both have their own sound, which is the main thing.

AAJ: Another recent recording is also a duo, Sempre Via (2019), with Italian saxophonist Gigi di Gregorio. As I understand it, you have a long history together, how did you meet? Is this the first time you have recorded together and what did you set out to do with this album?

HD: I did two albums with Gigi, the first being a live quartet date in Torino that I am very happy with. (I think you can find it on YouTube.) It featured some of my most open piano playing in a loose setting. We sadly lost Gigi in 2017 and it was tragic for everyone who knew his generousness and enthusiasm. I feel that his true spirit came through on Sempre Via, and he wrote some very beautiful music and played soprano with a unique voice. I met him a long time ago in Italy when I recorded Three for Chet with Felice Reggio, but we only started to play together in 2007 when Gigi arranged a tour in the Torino region and put together a group to play my tunes. It was always a pleasure to go back just about every year after that to eat, drink, and play my music with him and our dear friends there.

AAJ: Are there other recording projects and concerts to look forward to? Any chance that there will be another trio recording soon and will you perhaps return again to the solo piano format that you explored on After the Rain (1995)?

HD: I don't have anything in the works with Nils, but there may be a release on a Canadian label of some live tracks of my own music I did in Canada last month with Pat LaBarbera Kirk MacDonald Quartet. I also have some solo tracks and other music from my Eastman years on a hard drive, maybe for eventual release, as well as some interesting live tracks from Taiwan.

AAJ: One of your compositions is called "Total Obsession." What is the thing that occupies you most musically at the moment?

HD: Playing my own music at the highest level that I can.

AAJ: Finally, how would you sum up your musical journey so far and what is your hope for the future?

HD: The "journey" has been an improvisation, as has been my life, even in my new "post retirement from institutional jazz education" phase. New things are happening for me all the time and I am enjoying the variety of life experiences that accompany the dedication I have declared to my own music.

Photo Credit: Rochester International Jazz Festival / Photo by James Dolan
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