The Donald Harrison Quintet - "A Night In Treme" The Oasis Room at the Garde Arts Center, New London Tuesday, June 28, 2011
New London got a little bit of New Orleans on June 28th when the Donald Harrison Quintet played the Oasis Room at the Garde Arts Center.In a show entitled “A Night In Treme,” the jazz saxophonist and bandleader known as “The King Of Nouveau Swing” demonstrated how he has successfully merged pop, R&B and hip-hop with old-school and modern jazz and traditional New Orleans African-American roots culture.Harrison has also worked as a show consultant on the acclaimed HBO series “Treme,” set in that New Orleans neighborhood which explores the lives of various characters as they recover from the disaster of Katrina.
On this hot night in the city, Harrison and his Quintet were, as ESPN’s Stuart Scott likes to say, “as cool as the other side of the pillow.”
Promoter Ken Kitchings, with his fifteenth jazz show at the Garde, was beaming as he surveyed a sold-out, packed house awaiting the group in the Oasis Room, the two-year-old upstairs performing space in New London’s historic Garde, which has been a bona fide success in its short existence, providing artists with an intimate space to perform and the theatre with an opportunity to bring in a steady stream of patrons without having to fill its 1500-seat main theatre.
“It’s very heartwarming to me,” Kitchings told me. “I’ve been doing jazz here consistently because I believe in the music and I think people are catching on that we’re serious about bringing jazz.”Musicians have talked amongst one another about their positive experiences in the venue, prompting unsolicited calls from all over the country from bands planning East Coast swings.
With so many outdoor alternatives this time of year, Kitchings “was nervous about Summer,” he said.“But I heard Donald was open so I said, ‘let’s grab this.’A lot of people here, I don’t think they knew about Treme but they knew about him.”
The New London show was a homecoming of sorts for keyboard player Zaccai Curtis, a Connecticut native whose extended family in the Whaling City attended en masse with plenty of support.The gifted musician, who shone brightly throughout the night, was the only member of the Quintet not from the Crescent City, but “we like to think he’s from New Orleans,” Harrison joked when introducing him.
Free To Be, the title track from his 1998 release opened the first set, with Harrison loosening up on sax, Curtis taking an early solo and 21-year-old drummer Joe Dyson doing a short solo at the end.Harrison introduced They Can’t Take That Away From Me as “a song I heard Louis Armstrong sing with Ella Fitzgerald.It’s ‘tippin’ as they used to say.” Its happy, nice ‘n easy syncopation supported solos all around, with some fast fingering on the keys from Curtis, a bass solo from another young player, Max Moran (like drummer Dyson, a 2010 graduate of Boston’s Berklee School of Music) and veteran guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Detroit Brooks who draws upon a wealth of experience of his own to support Harrison’s varied stylings.
“Detroit brings a soulful element to jazz music,” Harrison told me after the show.“He adds a different sound to what one would expect out of a jazz band.R&B, funk, traditional jazz, all those things mixed up and he knows just exactly the most notes and rhythms to place while you’re soloing, so it’s like another color.It’s great to have.”Brooks’ first solo started out slow and simple then developed in speed and intensity.
“Duke Ellington said ‘there’s two kinds of music:good and bad.’ We try to stay on the good side!” Harrison told the crowd, to some appreciative laughter.“We dedicate ourselves to being students of music so we can bring it together in a logical fashion.We’re finally getting to a point where it’s making sense.”He kicked into Nouveau Swing, the title track of his 1997 release which first married R&B with jazz.
Harrison looked like he was having as much fun as anyone, smiling and nodding at the others during their solos.“I was enjoying the musicians,” he said to me afterward. “I was enjoying the interaction with the audience.I feel like I’m in the middle of the love from the audience and these incredible musicians who are pulling off music on a high level like they are.”
Young MJ, a song he wrote for Michael Jackson, followed and on Curtis’ intricate, amazing piano solo, I reminded myself to count his fingers later because I was convinced he must have seven on each hand to play like that.That selection, along with the “jazzy but funky” Sandcastle Headhunter, both from Harrison’s latest release, Quantum Leap, gave the saxophonist the chance to really show off his gift, blowing thrilling solos in a more modern jazz sound with Moran funking it up on electric bass.
Curtis swung over to the electric keyboard as they switched gears “into the pop arena,” as Harrison put it, with a medley of songs from his CD 3D.Though a jazz stalwart, Harrison has performed as a hip-hop MC and has influenced the rap culture as an early mentor to the Notorious B.I.G.“Here’s one for the ladies,” Harrison cooed as the Quintet eased into a soulful version of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love.Brooks had another outstanding guitar solo here as did Curtis and while Harrison’s first solo was melt-in-your-mouth smooth, with the second one, the rhythm turned into a compelling stomp.
“We’re goin’ to Nawlins now, ya’ll!”Harrison shouted as Dyson laid down a Bo Diddley beat to lay into the Crescent City classic Iko Iko. The bandleader sang and led the fun, clapping and dancing, which set a precedent for what was to come in their second set.Curtis, back on grand piano, and Brooks sizzled on their solos to bring the first set to a rousing close.
Clockwise from top left: Zaccai Curtis, Max Moran, Joe Dyson and Detroit Brooks
During the break, I wanted to talk to Hartford’s Zacciah Curtis, but he was surrounded by family.Instead, I sought out drummer Joe Dyson, who surprised me by saying that he’s been working with Harrison for five years, since he was barely sixteen.“He’s been a great mentor and, in a sense, a musical father to me,” Dyson said.“I’ve been around Donald since I was eight or nine, starting first at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans, which is a three-week program where some of the youth of the city would come and learn and Donald was the artist in residence that year.It was during a lunch break and I was in the drum room where they had two kits set up and I was playing by myself.He came in and said, ‘what’re ya’ll doin’ in here by yourself?’I said, ‘I’m just practicing and learning how to play jazz.’ I came from a gospel tradition with my family.He asked me if I knew names like Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and, of course, I said ‘no’ ‘cause I was eight years old and had never been exposed to any of that.So he sat down and he traded fours with me and traded eights, playing a few drum fills and drum phrases of those musicians, seeing if I could catch on to it.It was a great interaction.That was my first experience with him.I’ve been around him since then.
“He’s always been around and offering knowledge and offering advice of how to gain momentum and being able to propel myself as a musician and as an artist and stay grounded within the tradition.Donald had me on a strict diet of listening to the masters of this music, the innovators of this music as opposed to listening to some of the modern musicians of today, just to make sure I knew and learned the tradition and was able to extract new things from it and create my own voice within it and still be embedded and rooted within the tradition, to push the music forward.It’s been a great lesson and it’s starting to manifest itself the more I’m playing with him. The older I get, I can finally understand what he’s saying.”
I asked him if it was intimidating that Harrison has worked with so many great jazz drummers like the ones he mentioned along with innovator Billy Cobham. “It never was,” he replied.“The music is intimidating.It’s always honest and unforgiving; it lets you know what you need to work on.So him playing with Billy Cobham only gives me more experience because Donald’s the type of person, he’s going to share those experiences with us.Especially if you’re humble to the music and honest about saying what you don’t know.That’s the first thing we’ve always done, just being straight honest with ourselves and having humility and he’ll let us know exactly what we need to work on.He’ll share what he’s done with Billy Cobham or Tony Williams or Art Blakey or Roy Haynes.”
The second set was vastly different from the first, exploring Harrison’s melting pot of musical motifs, much like the gumbos of his hometown.And it was all very New Orleans, starting with Big Chief, (the nickname for his dad, Donald Harrison, Sr.) that simply cut loose and blew the doors off the old Garde.
The Indian’s Got That Fire, a song by another New Orleans great, Cyril Neville (of Neville Brothers fame) is built on a simple but catchy bass line and plays into another of Harrison’s passions, capturing Mardi Gras Native American culture within a jazz context (he designs and makes his own Mardi Gras costumes each year and a master singer/dancer who has risen to the position of Big Chief of Congo Square with his group the Congo Nation).
Likewise, Hu-Ta-Nay, from the Indian Blues CD he did with Dr. John, was a tightly-structured romp with a smokin’ solo from Brooks on his Heritage Sweet 16 jazz hollow-body guitar who then played the same riff in unison with Harrison’s horn.Unlike the first set, where the bandleader talked between many of the selections, the second set just sizzled along.The Meters’ Hey Pocky Way rolled on with its “good for your body, good for the soul,” refrain summing up the feeling perfectly, it’s good-time music with Curtis again excelling on the keys, Brooks offering a running guitar solo and Harrison’s Bill Withers-like vocal styling. Indian Blues closed out the show and Dyson’s drum solo was powerful and pure, one of the only drum solos I’ve ever heard that concentrated on just the snare, just keeping time with the high-hat and using the toms and cymbals toward the end, instead of thrashing away on as many pieces of the kit as possible.
The audience wanted more and for an encore, the band did a brief instrumental piece that had Harrison playing percussion on Curtis’ electric keyboard, with drums, cowbells and whistles all contributing to the rhythm.
The band after the show: Joe Dyson, Max Moran, Detroit Brooks, Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis
Afterward, Harrison spent a generous amount of time with me to discuss the development of his musical style and jazz music in general.“It’s a traditional music,” he said, “and like anything that’s part of a tradition, the people who take the time to try to understand how the past was put together and understand how to play things from the past can use those things to tell the story of today and it still has the depth of feeling from the whole history of the music.
“I have a wide appetite for music.I like a buffet.A smorgasbord.We have musicians who can support and lead in various ways in many styles of music.I’m happy about that.”
It was a big night for his keyboard player who got a chance to show his stuff for the home crowd.“Zaccai Curtis is one of the leading exponents of Afro-Caribbean music and jazz of his generation,” Harrison exclaimed.“I remember when he first joined the band, I used to say, ‘go check out Bud Powell,’ and he did and he’s one of the few young guys who has the influences of be-bop.All the old guys, like McCoy Tynan, no matter how far he went, you still could hear the roots of the music.I’ve always felt that’s important.He agreed and he went and paid his dues and he learned a lot of different things.We’re happy and I can hear the difference now with him.He’s very grounded now.I love him.He’s incredible.”
I wondered if he’s gotten too successful to be able to improvise on stage anymore or if hit records have made people have expectations.“Oh, I improvise on every solo,” he replied.“Fortunately, with this band, I can improvise in many styles.I can stretch like I did on Sand CastleHead Hunter, go to the outer limits or just play something in the pocket, like Soul To Soul.”
When I asked about ‘masking,’ the Mardi Gras dancing with the Congo Nation, he waxed enthusiastically. “You’re talking about the culture of New Orleans.I’ve risen to become a Big Chief.It was hard work, just like playing this music.I always say, we’re keeping one of the root musics of America and the world alive, one of the root cultures that has been influenced by Africa but is now an African-American culture, a culture that was put together in New Orleans and sustained since the 1700s.New Orleans is a traditional city and has a culture of jazz music, of course, the only city in the world that has a real jazz culture and a culture that has so many African roots to it but now has influences from Native Americans and everybody else in New Orleans.All these influences.But the culture stays alive, that’s the main thing."
For someone who’s performed and learned from a who’s who of jazz, I wondered what was the most awe-inspiring moment for him when he was getting started.“The first time I was on the bandstand with Miles (Davis), I kept staring at him,” he remembered.“I mean, all those guys.Art Blakey, the first time I was on the bandstand with him, I kept staring at him because I couldn’t believe it.Every time I’ve had a new experience like that, with one of those masters, Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner, Lena Horne. With Lena Horne, the first time, I was actually pinching myself, ‘cause I was like, ‘this has to be a dream.’She was a wonderful person.I was shy and I kept trying to retire to the back and she kept saying, ‘I want you to stand up here with me in the front of the band and play solos.’I really miss her a lot and the love for such an icon, such a brilliant musical person and actress, that she took time for a little guy – I considered myself a little guy, I still sorta do – that she took time to say, ‘no, I want you up here so you can get a better feel for what it’s like to play with me.’”