Donald Harrison Jr: “I describe our sound as serious fun”

Donald Harrison Jr is part of a generation of musicians who managed to keep jazz alive and kicking, in really adverse times, when it the genre was being disregarded by mainstream culture while at the same time being pigeonholed as the ‘American Classical Music’ and becoming subject to an academic approach. But he’s more than that. His whole approach to jazz is a kind of bridging different traditions, from that of his hometown, New Orleans, to hard-bop, which he mastered playing alongside Art Blakey, to modern urban sounds.In his latest release, ‘Quantum Leap’, the saxophonist introduces the concept of “quantum jazz”, through an exploration of harmony, rhythm, melody and structure, which he “expands”, from “a normal two-dimensional state to a four-dimensional state,” as he puts it “When you clap on two and four you will see that the time is moving differently thanyou than how it sounds,” he has written about it. All this is in perfect display for anyone who goes to see his performances at Melbourne’s Bird’s Basement, these days. Here’s what he had to say about his journey in music.

What are you going to present at Bird’s Basement?

With our group you will hear music that is first and foremost music made for the mind, body and soul. I like music that is toe tapping and feels good but also strives for its highest level and connects to the expansive depths of intellect and soulfulness. We present the history of jazz as well as some nouveau swing and some quantum jazz style. We also sometimes present some soulful soul sax. I describe our sound as serious fun.

What is Nouveau Swing?

Nouveau Swing is the merging of swinging modern jazz with modern dance music like hip-hop, funk, soul, rock and R&B. With Nouveau Swing I produced a hybrid style that jazz people and today’s music fans relate to. Young cats like Christian Scott and Jon Batiste have told me the style influenced what they do. Older cats like Brian Lynch, Mike Clark and the great Eddie Henderson dig it too.

How would you describe it to someone not familiar with your music?

I am merging the history of music into a modern acoustic jazz sound that makes you feel good and pat your feet as well as giving you the option to intellectualize what you are hearing.

What need did you address with it?

I addressed my internal need to play the sound of my universe that was taught to me from respecting and loving other people’s music. I loved all types of music which led to me playing all types of music, which led to me hearing ways to merge different styles into a new encompassing sound. What I do started when I read Charlie Parker’s statement “If you don’t live it, it ain’t coming out of your horn.” After that, I started my mission in high school to play with as many masters of jazz and music in general, to work on trying to master the whole history of jazz, playing with the people who created it. I have now played with over 300 masters of music including people like Art Blakey, Miles Davis, The Duke’s Men, McCoy Tyner, The Headhunters, Maceo Parker, The Funky Meters, Galactic and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I have also participated in the offshoot culture of New Orleans’ Congo Square which is one of the root sources of the world’s music. In my estimation, all my preparation and experiences have given me the ability to play many styles of music in a way that is honest and the insight of how to mix them while keeping the core of what each style is intact. I also like a lot of different styles of music because my parents played jazz, classical, soul, R&B, African, Indian, Broadway and an incredible diverse array of music at home which made me a fan of all the music.

How has your sound evolved through time?

The sound of what I am doing has evolved into to bringing musicians and people together. My next record will be called ‘The Eclectic Jazz Revolution of Unity’ – it will feature variations on acoustic jazz,including examples of nouveau swing, quantum jazz, hip-hop jazz where I play sax, scat, do spoken word and harmonized vocalese.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in jazz today?

I would tell them music is like a bank account. What you put in is what you get out.

How would you describe your relationship to the saxophone?

I feel like I can tell my story best on the alto saxophone.

Why did you take on that instrument?

I really did not choose saxophone; my father made an impulse purchase of my first saxophone because he thought I should have it. I did not really want to play the horn in elementary school when I first got it, but when I was in ninth grade I picked it up and we have been together ever since.

Do you remember the first time you played?

I remember the first time I was featured on sax for sure.

What was it like?

It was scary and thrilling at the same time.

You are from New Orleans; you have worked with legends and you’ve delved into various sub-genres of jazz; how has that shaped your approach to jazz?

I grew up really participating as a dancer then a musician in New Orleans’ traditional jazz second-line culture, which is the world’s only citywide jazz culture, in addition to participating in the only offshoot African style tribes in the United States. I am positive that those experiences gave me a different idea for jazz. I grew up thinking of jazz as dance music, just like the music you hear on the radio. This element was never taught in school or discussed by any of my music peers so that alone made me realize I had a different thought process then even the cats from New Orleans like the Marsalis brothers and my partner at the time, Terence Blanchard. They are all great players, but including a dance feeling did not seem to be high on their priority list in the early ’80s. I also wanted to understand how toplay the whole history of jazz from a young age.

What is jazz?

Jazz is a musical language that endeavors to take music to the highest levels humanly possible.

What does being a Big Chief mean to you?

Being The Big Chief has given me insider knowledge of how New Orleans jazz was formed. I can hear the tribal information on a lot of early jazz recordings and it is great to really know the key to the whole history of jazz.

What is the most important thing that you have learnt in your life?

If you can help one person make to the next moment then you life was needed.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

My own tune, Free To Be.

Just trying to be as good a person and as I can as a musician.

Donald Harrison Jr is playing at Bird’s Basement from Wednesday 6 to Sunday 10 June