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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 Julian "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!"
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