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Take Five with Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison By

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Meet Tom Harrison:
For alto saxophonist/composer Tom Harrison, the art of jazz is far more than mastery of the instrument, fluency in the repertoire and respect for the tradition. For Tom, the real undertaking is to connect with that which inspired the immortals of jazz, and to cultivate it within his own work. Born in Cardiff and raised in Sheffield, Tom has become one of UK jazz's fastest rising stars after finishing his studies in 2012. Since graduating Tom has recorded two albums, and toured the UK as a leader eight times. As a sideman Tom has toured or recorded with a host of internationally recognised jazz artists, including Terell Stafford, Jean Toussaint, John Goldsby, Cleveland Watkiss, Robert Mitchell, David Lyttle, Jason Rebello and many more. He as also been featured alongside Talib Kweli, Heather Small, M-People, The Fall and many other commercial artists. 2016 has been a big year for Tom. His second album Unfolding In Tempo was released in October to much critical acclaim, following a major UK tour and recording. The album has been a big success with both media and audiences alike championed by BBC News, BBC Music Magazine, Jazz FM, All About Jazz, Time Out and Jazzwise.

Instrument(s):
Alto Saxophone, Flute

Teachers and/or influences?
I've had some really great saxophone teachers. The first teacher who really inspired me was Mornington Lockett, an incredible tenor player. He was a member of Ronnie Scott's band, and has mentored a lot of the exciting young players on the scene today. He gave me the confidence to move to London and pursue music. I suppose the best lessons I've learned have come from touring and working with musicians way above my level. Night-after-night you get to hear how a musician approaches the music differently. It's a fantastic experience. There's nothing like playing with guys who have developed a very strong personal sound. Robert Mitchell is an incredible pianist! He's got a way of guiding you through his playing, telling you where he wants you to go next. That flexibility! I always have a ton of stuff to go home and work on after touring with Robert!

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
My first inspiration came as a boy listening to my grandfather play piano. He was a brilliant musician, he could play all 48 of Bach's Preludes and Fugues in all 12 keys!!! He gave me his copies of the music from when he was studying at the Royal College of Music, which I still have. He had a beautiful grand piano, I used to listen to him play the music of Debussy and Ravel, I loved the richness of the harmony contrasted with the simpler melodies. I've always wanted to play piano like that, but I've never been able to get it together!

Your sound and approach to music:
Like everyone I'm really striving to find my own voice on the instrument. I'm very inspired by the saxophone playing of the great Eric Dolphy. He played so out, but never at the expense of great time and feel. I love that approach. I love the soulfulness of players like Sonny Stitt or Cannonball Adderley, and I love the energy and intensity of later period Coltrane—that transcendence that Sonny Fortune has captured so perfectly. I suppose I'm trying to find a way to bring these two strands together coherently. If I want to improve a specific element of my playing I'll look to a source that I feel captures it the best and go to work. For example, when I want to develop my sound and phrasing, I look to Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster. I've spent a lot of time studying those players. Likewise with Cannonball for his feel and articulation. Then I'll look to see how Johnny Hodges style was developed by Cannonball, which elements were discarded, or retained and developed; and how more modern players have taken it on from there. I like tracing those kinds of lines through the music. For me, it's essential that the basics are strong. I don't think I'll ever get to the stage where I feel like I've mastered the basics!

Your teaching approach:
Everyone has their own approach to teaching. I feel that for me teaching is an essential part of working as a jazz musician. As a member of a group you're constantly learning from and being inspired by others. As a teacher the role isn't much different, so what I'm playing and the projects I'm working on directly feeds into my teaching. I've found that helping people to improve is all about problem solving, trying to understand a students' thought processes and their approach to study, rather than consistently sticking to a method that has worked in my own practice. We've all had that situation when you've been working on something for ages, trying to improve it and nothing seems to work. Breaking those blocks can be really challenging. From the teacher's outside viewpoint it can be difficult to figure out what's causing a block, why things aren't quite coming together right. If you can figure out what's causing the problem, it then becomes much easier to develop a strategy to fix it!

Road story: Your best or worst experience:
Last year I was doing a tour of Ireland with David Lyttle's trio, which also featured the incredible John Goldsby on bass. David is a good friend and someone I work with a lot. He is a fantastic drummer with a lot of great ideas, and of course I was really excited to play my first tour with John. It was the first day of the tour, and we showed up at the first gig for the sound check. We were all getting settled on stage, when David brings out this small, motorised chimp, the kind holding a pair of cymbals, then when you set it going it starts bashing them together. David sets the chimp down on a small table next to the drums and says 'John, how would you feel about taking a solo with the chimp?' John, a little taken aback and not sure to make of the question answers, "Okay, lets try it!" Sure enough, later that night we found ourselves playing "Cherokee" with this motorised chimp! It was pretty surreal! He was crashing his cymbals at a pretty tough tempo! The only problem was that every time the chimp hit his cymbals, he'd move around slightly, which meant his time started to get pretty sloppy after a couple of choruses! David managed to turn off the chimp just at the right time to save the tune! The audience loved it, so the chimp became part of our 'act' for the rest of the tour. It became a running joke for the rest of the week, hanging with the chimp, making chimp noises that kind of thing! Finally it got to the last gig, David asks John, "What do you think about getting a real chimp on stage for the next tour? We could give him a pair of cymbals or a wood block. Do you think he could keep good time?" John thinks for a second, looks at David frostily, "I think if you bring a chimp onstage with you, it's going to do whatever the hell it wants!"

Favorite venue:
I've played at a lot of different venues, but I guess I'd have to say Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho. I've spent a lot of time there, and had some great nights both playing and listening. That place has a magic to it, anything can happen there!

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
That would have to be my new album Unfolding In Tempo. We recorded the album live on a tour back in February at two different venues, The Pizza Express Jazz Club on Dean St in Soho, and the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. It's a project dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The band features the incredible vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, who is probably the most complete musician I've ever worked with. There's so much to learn from him. The group also includes Robert Mitchell on piano, David Lyttle on drums and Daniel Casimir on bass; all great guys with really individual approaches to the music. There's a really positive atmosphere in the band both onstage and off, and I think that really comes through on the recording—we're having a lot of fun!

The first Jazz album I bought was:
When I first got into jazz a friend of mine gave me a few CDs, but the first album I remember buying was Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers A Night at Birdland. Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson!! That made an impression!! I remember being knocked out by Blakey's drumming on "Wee-Dot."

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
I guess that's not for me to say! I'm not sure I'm contributing anything important yet, but there's plenty of time to figure that out!

CDs you are listening to now:
I'm listening to a few different things right now. Cleveland Watkiss has a new album out called Song Diasporas, great versions of different songs from different genres. It's bringing a really delicate and subtle feel to songs you'd be mostly likely to have heard on a stadium tour. Also been listening to Trish Clowes' new album My Iris. It's a great album full of beautiful music and great playing. Very thought provoking. I'm also listening to Diz and Bird Live At Carnegie Hall a lot at the moment—I'm preparing for a project I'm leading in January with the incredible Quentin Collins on trumpet.

Desert Island picks:
Oliver Nelson: Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!);
Joe Lovano: Two Quartets Live at the Vanguard (Blue Note);
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy (Blue Note);
John Coltrane: Crescent (Impulse!);
Johnny Hodges: Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges (Impulse!).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
It's a really exciting time for jazz in London. There are so many great players around, and there are new clubs and venues hosting jazz popping up all the time. There has been a lot of popular interest in the vintage scene over the past few years and I think that has bred a familiarity with feel-good jazz in people that has started to spread a lot more outside of that limited commercial area. There are some great open-minded audiences out there!

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
I like to think it's the same as it has always been! It's about artists making music that inspires THEM and then communicating that to the listener, rather than feeling compelled to go down a certain route because of what's in vogue at the time. It's a question that's really about music as a whole rather than just jazz. The industry has so many problems nowadays, and it's very hard to make a commercial success of any kind of music. That's got nothing to do with audiences but more to do with how people consume music. Because of this, it's very easy to fall into the trap of creating music that serves the industry, rather than the other way around. Maybe individual artistic 'growth' has suffered a little as a result. Jazz has always been social music, best enjoyed live, so I think it's really important to retain that element when playing music that's coming out of that tradition. To keep jazz growing as an artist you have to stay true to yourself, to make music that's exciting and challenging, but that never loses sight of the audience.

What is in the near future?
My first gig of 2017 as a leader is on January 16th, It's at the Jazz Café in London, which is a fantastic venue. I'll be paying tribute to the seminal album Diz and Bird Live at Carnegie Hall. In February I'll be performing some new music with French pianist Fabrice Tarel, in March I'll be touring the UK again to promote the release of Unfolding In Tempo, and in April I'll be heading over to the US for a month as part of a residency with David Lyttle. I'm really excited about that last one, although it's too soon to reveal any further details about it just yet!

What song would you like played at your funeral?
Never thought about that one before! I'd be quite tempted to go down the hilarious / ironic route! Need some more time to think about that one.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?
Shower time = quiet time!

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:
I think I'd have to go way out there and say vet! I love animals. Or maybe an astrophysicist! I love reading about astronomy and the universe it's so exciting to hear about new discoveries being made all the time. It'd be pretty great to have your mind blown like that every day!

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