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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.

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The Jazzletter
Tenor Saxophonist, Harry Allen
By Gene Lees
July 30, 1997