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“By the time I was in college I was around people who were really into Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. I loved the way they played of course but what I particularly like about the tenor is the sound of guys like Webster, Chu Berry, Zoot, Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips so that is what I gravitated towards.”
- Harry Allen, tenor saxophonist
Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his perceptive and well-researched writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.
Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was published in the July, 2017 edition of Jazz Journal.
For more information and subscriptions please visit www.jazzjournal.co.uk
© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“Nicki Parrott’s 2010 release – Black Coffee – with guest appearances from Harry Allen is a CD I frequently return to. Ms Parrott’s intimate delivery recalls the breathless charm of Peggy Lee and she clearly believes the old tunes are the best tunes with delightful performances of Dark Eyes, Don’t Smoke In Bed, Our Day Will Come, Just One More Chance, No Moon At All, Black Coffee and other gems of a similar vintage. Quality standards like these are what Mark Crooks had in mind when he once told me they offered, ‘A hundred lifetimes of material to explore’.
A brief glance at Harry Allen’s extensive discography reveals this songbook repertoire has frequently been an inspiration for him on many of his own recordings. Over the years he has devoted complete CDs to a re-examination of the works of Sammy Fain (1990), Billy Strayhorn (1993), Duke Ellington (1999), Cole Porter (2001), Henry Mancini (2002), Johnny Burke (2010), Hoagy Carmichael (2013), Johnny Mandel (2014) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (2015). Broadway shows, too, like Guys & Dolls (2007), South Pacific (2008)) and The Sound Of Music (2010) have all been successfully revisited. Themes from James Bond films (2010) show how well Harry has perfected the art of communication from even the most unlikely of sources. Paying tribute to his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular songs, his long-time colleague, pianist Rossano Sportiello once said, “I’ve yet to find a tune Harry doesn’t know”.
His full, rounded sound on tenor reflects the influence of an earlier generation of performers like Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young and Scott Hamilton. We met at the conclusion of his November 2016 UK tour. He had been accompanied by Andrea Pozza (piano), Simon Woolf (bass) and Steve Brown (drums) and I began by asking about his latest release featuring Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart (tenors) and Gary Smulyan (baritone) - aka The New York Saxophone Band. “That band has actually been in existence for about ten years and I have been trying to get someone to record it for a long time. In 2006 Hans Zurbruegg the owner of Marian’s Jazzroom in Bern, Switzerland asked me to put together a four-saxophone band for a festival there. I thought doing all the arrangements might be too much work but I decided it was a great opportunity especially as I was being paid for the project. I started to get other work for the ensemble in the States and in Europe and I use whoever can make it but the guys on the CD are the ‘A’ Team – they’re the ones I call first.
“Phil Woods gave me Al Cohn’s Four Brothers chart from the 1957 reunion date with Zoot Sims, Al, Herbie Steward and Serge Chaloff. It’s a great arrangement written for four saxes whereas Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers was a big band chart. I’ve had the reunion album in my collection for years and on the CD we do The Red Door from that session which is my adaptation of the original – it wasn’t a transcription. I think three tenors and a baritone is a warmer sound than the conventional five-man sax section with two altos on top. I play the first tenor part mostly but the lead moves around on some of the arrangements. Incidentally on this tour I was joined by Olly Wilby and Dave O’Higgins (tenors) and Richard Shepherd (baritone) at London’s 606 Club where we performed material from the CD. We had a two-hour rehearsal before the gig and they proved to be great readers and excellent soloists.
“I don’t like doing set-lists when I’m playing. You don’t know in advance what the feel is going to be at any given point of a performance - with the audience, the band or personally. I might spontaneously feel like playing a certain tune or maybe the audience might like a bossa-nova but if you put a list together you miss all that so I never do a set-list. I just go with what I feel at the moment and Andrea, Simon and Steve have all been able to respond to that. I had worked with them in 2015 here and in Spain so I was happy to have them with me again. During the tour I have combined playing with teaching at the Royal Academy. I did private lessons with most of the saxophone players and I taught some repertoire classes to different grades of students. I also taught a couple of Master Classes and I must say that the standard was very high. It reminded me of Juilliard in New York.” (Harry has a B.A. in music from Rutgers University).
I asked what tenor he used and if he had ever thought of playing the soprano. “I use a 1938 Selmer Balanced-Action. Most players use a Mark 6 or a Super Balanced-Action but I like the Balanced-Action better. The mechanism is simpler, they’re tougher and don’t break down so much. I tried a soprano years ago but I didn’t like it very much. Some guys feel comfortable playing a lot of instruments but I don’t.” (Danny Bank who was probably the most recorded baritone player in history played all the saxes, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet and oboe). “Every time I played the soprano or clarinet I really wanted to get back to the tenor – I just hear music through the tenor and by the time I graduated college it really was the only instrument for me. Anyway I spent so much time finding the right mouthpiece and the reeds I liked, I wouldn’t want to devote the same amount of time to another horn.
“Thanks to my father I heard a lot of good music when I was growing up. He was a drummer and worked quite a bit with Paul Gonsalves because they had been in high school together. There were always Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald records in the house which is where I got my love of that music from. By the time I was in college I was around people who were really into Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. I loved the way they played of course but what I particularly like about the tenor is the sound of guys like Webster, Chu Berry, Zoot, Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips so that is what I gravitated towards.
“My first date as a leader was on the Progressive label in 1988 with Keith Ingham (piano), Major Holley (bass) and Oliver Jackson (drums).”(Keith was an old-boy of my school. He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford where he read Mandarin. He moved to New York in 1978). “Oliver was very good to me because he took me on several long European tours beginning around 1990 teaching me the ropes. That first trip lasted about ten weeks and we had John Coles with us on trumpet. Oliver told promoters that they should remember me telling them, ‘You’re going to want this guy’. Even now most of my European tours can be traced back to him.”
Harry has performed on several recordings with Scott Hamilton and I asked if standing toe-to-toe with another tenor player created a feeling of competitiveness. “I think of music as a test to be the most musical. It’s not a competition to see who can play the loudest, the fastest or the longest. My goal is always to play the best solo in the song. Incidentally, I should mention a great trio album that Scott recorded with Dave McKenna and Jake Hanna – No Bass Hit. I love that record partly because of Dave who is severely under-rated. He is one of the top five piano players of all time in my opinion. I wouldn’t turn down an offer to do something like that but I like working with a bass so it’s not something I’m dying to do. I’ve recorded a couple of Burt Bacharach tunes and I’ve considered doing a whole album because I like his material. Hal David’s lyrics are tremendous too. I’ve recorded Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. I don’t know enough of their material to devote a whole CD to their work but I might consider it.
Harry and Guitarist Joe Cohn had a long association for about 15 years. During that time they recorded no less than 13 CDS together and in 2006 they won the New York Nightlife Award for outstanding jazz combo performance. “If finances were not an issue I would love to work with a big band or an orchestra. About two years ago I performed Eddie Sauter’s Focus which was written for Stan Getz. I was invited to appear with a string ensemble from Boston – A Far Cry – who were absolutely great. They played better than the studio guys because when you really listen to it there are parts on the record where the strings are not really making it. I spent a week in Boston rehearsing with them and I would love to do it again. My part just had chord symbols with the occasional measure or two of a melodic line because most of the tenor part is improvised.” (Brian Schuth’s review in The Boston Musical Intelligencer said, ‘Allen’s fluency afforded many pleasures’. The strings on Stan Getz’s recording were the Beaux-Arts String Quartet supplemented by orchestral players who were unlikely to have been afforded the luxury of a week’s rehearsal time.) “The score is available commercially and my friend Jeff Rupert who is Head of the Jazz department at UCF has performed it once or twice.
”This may surprise you but about five years ago I was invited by a friend to a jam session at Ornette Coleman’s home in New York City. It was just the two of us with a rhythm section. We played for about three hours in his music-room and it was a fascinating experience although I find tonal music more rewarding. We played free and I approached it the way I would any other kind of music. I listened to everyone and tried to fit in by playing something that made musical sense. Ornette probably didn’t know anything about me but I don’t think he came away thinking I was a guy who just played standards. I wasn’t a fish out of water and I was happy about that. We played three pieces, each lasting about half an hour. The first and last didn’t have a melody or harmony and the middle one started out as Body And Soul but quickly turned into something else. He talked a lot about music in between the songs and he was very nice to me.
“After this November tour, Jan Lundgren and I are performing a Tribute To Stan Getz and Jan Johansson in Oslo before I return home to New Jersey for a day then it’s off to Miami for a Jazz Cruise. I’m at Birdland with Freddy Cole for five nights just before Christmas and on New Year’s Eve I will be playing in Arkansas with Judy Carmichael. I do a lot of travelling all over the States and I come to Europe four or five times a year and usually there’s a trip to Japan. I’ve been doing a lot of composing lately and I plan on doing a lot more. My collaborator is Judy Carmichael who is a fine lyricist - she has added words to The One For You and I Can See Forever from my Four Saxophone CD. We’re working on several projects together but I also want my playing career to keep on the way it’s going - I’m lucky to stay so busy”.”
Tenors Anyone? (Novus BVCJ-642 CD)
Here’s To Zoot (Novus BVCJ-648 CD)
Down For The Count (Swing Bros CMSB-28016CD)
The Candy Men: Harry Allen’s All Star New York Saxophone Band (Arbors Jazz ARCD 19450)
Nicki Parrott: Black Coffee (Venus VHCD-1041)
Freddy Cole: Singing The Blues (High Note HCD 7267)
Butch Miles: Cookin’ (Nagel-Heyer CD020)
Warren Vache’: Swingtime! (Nagel-Heyer GCD 059)
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