Tenor Saxophonist, Harry Allen

Gene Lees By

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Stan Getz was once asked his idea of the perfect tenor saxophone soloist. His answer (pianist Lou Levy was present and heard it) was, "My technique, Al Cohn's ideas, and Zoot's time."

The fulfillment of that ideal may well be embodied in thirty-year-old Harry Allen, who is so good that after several takes of a tune on a record date, arranger and composer Johnny Mandel said from the control booth, Harry, would you mind screwing up on some of these to make our choices easier?

I discovered Harry Allen last fall on a Caribbean cruise on the S.S. Norway. His records are not easily available. I discovered that we had perhaps met eleven years earlier. One of Harry's saxophone teachers at Rutgers University was the late Sahib Shihab. In 1985, I stayed several days with Sahib in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was in charge of the Rutgers big band program. I attended a rehearsal of that band. Harry was in it. Harry received his Bachelor of Music Degree in 1988.

There is a lot of Zoot Sims in Harry Allen. For one thing, he has Zoot's exhilarating time feeling. And he has captured that trick of Zoot's of leaping from the low register of the horn up to the top in a sort of celebratory sunburst.

Zoot was the master of that, Harry said. So was Stan.

Harry's work traces back to pre-Coltrane saxophone. One hears his admiration for Zoot, for Al Cohn, and Ben Webster, which is manifest during ballads in a furry breathy sound. But it isn't quite Ben's. It may be rooted in Harry's earliest influence. His father, Maurice Allen, a drummer during the big band era and later an engineer and designer, went to high school and played with Paul Gonsalves. Harry was listening to Gonsalves with the Ellington band as far back as he can remember.

What jazz criticism in general has never understood is that originality as such means nothing. Much of the best music in history was not original. It simply brought to pinnacles of development practices that had gone before. Bach did not begin baroque music; he finished it.

Jazz has now explored its vocabulary, at least all the vocabulary that the audience is likely to follow. Its attempts at an avant- garde will doubtless achieve as much self-sustaining acceptance as that of European music, in which certain music that is now almost a hundred years old still is perceived as radically unlistenable. The question is whether jazz will, having learned its language, use it or will it try to abandon it, as classical music did. At the time of the rise of Arnold Schoenberg, it was widely thought that the European musical tradition was exhausted. Composers since then, including Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Puccini, Giordano, Hindemith, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and such Americans as Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Aaron Copland, and David Diamond, have proved that it wasn't and isn't.

Jazz is at a crossroads, with one ruminant element manifest in repertory orchestras, its opposite trying to find a new language that actually isn't there to be invented. Harry Allen is one of the young musicians who inspire a cautious hope that jazz may negotiate the waters between Scylla and Charybdis and emerge to use its now-rich vocabulary in original ways. He is already doing it, and each year seems to grow more personal. Certainly more powerful.

This kid is starting to make some real noise, said Jim Czak, the recording engineer and one of the proprietors of the Nola studio in New York, who recorded the most recent Allen album.

No major record company is spending fortunes on publicity for Harry. His career is happening on its own. One reason of course is his sheer excellence. His work is at a far higher level than that of the some of the most powerfully promoted young turks. And then there's his choice of material.

John Lewis has pointed out that jazz developed in symbiotic relationship with the superb body of popular music that America produced from the 1920s on; Alec Wilder set the end of the era at about 1955, and, in general, he was right. The songs of the era " those of Waller, Carmichael, Ellington, Kern, Gershwin, et al " were the lingua franca of jazz, material that audiences knew and wanted to hear " a familiar famework on which to enjoy and judge the inventions of the jazz musician. That has changed. Often you will pick up an album by a new jazz performer and find that he or she wrote all the tunes.

Harry Allen records standards. This may be because he is (like Lester Young and Ben Webster) partial to singers; he is a particular admirer of Peggy Lee. It is no doubt for this reason that he seems to know all the songs" almost every one of them written before he was born. And whether by design or not, Allen explores a repertoire that the older audience, at least, knows and likes. Interestingly, his close friend John Pizzarelli, who is having great success, does the same. His albums are made up mostly of standards. It is worth reflecting that Rob McConnell built the international success of his Boss Brass on standards.

Harry Allen was born in Washington D.C. on October 12, 1966, the second of two children in the family. His parents moved to Los Angeles when he was a year old and, when he was eleven, to Rhode Island, where they still live. A door-to-door salesman tried to talk his parents into lessons at an accordion studio for his sister, Sally, when she was eight, but not for Harry: at seven, he was considered too young. His father consented to the lessons only on the grounds that both children be given lessons, which they were. Accordion had this advantage: it is a chordal instrument and the exploration of harmony is implicit in learning to play it.

Harry soon began to study clarinet, and then in junior high school switched to tenor. And all the while he was listening to his father's record collection. He was steeped in jazz and the standards before he ever heard rock-and-roll.

I remember my dad would play me records before I went to school, Harry said. My parents were great about music. They didn't push my sister and me into it. But then when we showed a natural interest, they were very supportive. I played soprano, I played a little bit of alto, and then as I went along, I would be playing the clarinet or the soprano, and I would think, 'Boy, I'd rather be playing tenor.' I spend so much aggravation and time trying to get the sound exactly the way I want on tenor. I'd love to play clarinet and really play it well and get the exact sound I want, but there are not enough hours in the day.

I had heard mostly Paul Gonsalves with Duke's band. I just wanted to play tenor. It wasn't really because of any one in particular. But after I started, a tenor player in Rhode Island named Nick Peters told me I should pick up a Scott Hamilton record. I heard that great sound he has and said, `That's what I want to sound like.' Scott Hamilton was the first big influence on me. After that I learned about the guys who went before him. I learned about Zoot and Al and Stan Getz and Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips.

Harry studied at Rutgers from 1984 to 1988. Kenny Barron was the piano instructor, Harry said. He is such a great musician, and such a nice guy. So in a way it was four years of hanging out with Kenny Barron. I took piano with him. }}Larry Ridley}} taught bass. Sahib Shihab was there in 1985. He'd say to me, `Ah, get out of here, you don't need a lesson, you're okay.'

The reason I went to Rutgers was to be around New York. I felt, even as a kid, that going to school was not the way to learn how to play music. To be around the guys who were doing it was the way to do it. I felt that if I went to Berklee or one of those schools, I'd be so tied up with music courses that I wouldn't be able to go out and hear the music. I thought that Rutgers would let me go into New York and hang out. And that's exactly what I did. My first year at Rutgers was the last year of Eddie Condon's club. I hung out there a lot. I'd go to hear Buddy Tate or Scott Hamilton or Al Klink or Illinois Jacquet.

By my junior year in college, I had enough gigs to support myself. When I graduated I kept going the same way I had been going. I went into New York and hung out and tried to get gigs.

In my first year in college, I had already met people like Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache. Warren told me, `You should look up John Pizzarelli. He's about your age and he's doing sort of the same thing.' I found out that John was playing at a place two blocks from my dormitory. I went down and introduced myself. He invited me to another club where he was working with his father. I sat in. Bucky and John have since been my biggest supporters in the music business. They have done so much for me. My other big supporters have been Major Holley and Oliver Jackson. I'm so grateful to them. Oliver was the first one to take me overseas. He took me on four or five overseas tours. He showed me the ropes on how to lead a band, how to travel, he was just wonderful.

That he has made fifteen albums leaves Harry unimpressed. He laughed, Most of them are impossible to get. I get good distribution on a record in a certain part of the world. I have done four or five records in England. They get them all over England but nowhere else. I've done some records for the Nagel Hayer company in Germany. They do a good job getting them around Germany but not much anywhere else. The album with John Pizzarelli for BMG has great distribution in Japan. I've never been to Japan, but everybody who goes there tells me the album is on display in all the stores. I've recorded a few for American companies that get some distribution but not total distribution.

John Pizzarelli is selling records. And again, it's not a great wonder why. He swings and he plays great tunes.
About Harry Allen
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