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Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone

Jason Crane By

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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?

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 HarryAllenJazz.com. 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)

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)

Photo Credits
Courtesy of Harry Allen

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