Harrison’s ‘Passion’ Mixes Hard Swing, Trap Hip-Hop

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“Einstein was a violinist, Max Planck was also a musician and Stefon Alexander plays saxophone,” says Donald Harrison about the relationship between science and music.

(Photo: Courtesy Ropeadope)

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” That sage advice from Charlie Parker became Big Chief Donald Harrison’s lodestar, even though Parker passed away before Harrison was even born.

“I realized that was the path I should be on,” recalled the New Orleans-born saxophonist and composer, the scion of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. “I was already part of the roots culture of New Orleans music and Congo Square. So I went on a mission to play with as many masters of jazz as I could and see where that would take me.”

His trajectory flew fast and far. At age 19, he started playing with Roy Haynes and introduced Big Apple jazzbos to New Orleans brass bands with New York Second Line. Miles Davis became an early mentor, as did Art Blakey, and Harrison’s quest to explore the musical omniverse soon took him to Africa, South America, the Caribbean and beyond. Closer to home, he gleaned material from the radio and The Notorious BIG, his Brooklyn neighbor. But it wasn’t until 2005, when he released 3D (Fromp), that the NEA Jazz Master began recording a single song in several mix-and-match genres.

The Art Of Passion (Ropeadope), his new three-track EP, premiered Jan. 11 at New York’s Town Hall with guest stars ranging from DJ Logic and Vernon Reid to Charles Tolliver and Arturo O’Farrill. Shortly afterward, Harrison sat down to discuss his musical journey and Passion’s mix of hard swing, trap hip-hop and jazz.

Cree McCree: I love the title, The Art Of Passion.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, passion comes in many forms. The recording shows a mirror image of two styles of music: hard swing that greats like what Coltrane and Miles Davis were doing in the ’60s and the modern trap hip-hop young people came up with. Those two bookends merge in the middle track, so you can see the whole journey if you listen to the music.

McCree: And you were living that journey, just like Bird advised. You were mentored by Miles and actually lived near Biggie Smalls in Brooklyn.

Harrison: That’s the part I’m always pinching myself about, being around some of the greatest people in the world. Biggie would come to my house every day to work on music and became the king of East Coast rap. If you type in “Notorious BIG quotes,” you’ll see all these messages of hope to young people hidden underneath his music. That if you work hard, you can achieve anything.

McCree: You also learned a lot from the quantum physicist Stefon Alexander. How did that connection come about?

Harrison: After I did a recording called Quantum Leap, I emailed him to ask about the idea of multiverses: that if they exist, each one would be different, but they would contain the same elements. We’ve stayed in touch and it’s been a great marriage. Sometimes when we’re talking, we come up with the same ideas. It’s a little bit scary, but wonderful. Einstein was a violinist, Max Planck was also a musician and Stefon Alexander plays saxophone.

McCree: Bingo.

Harrison: Music fueled their finding new ways to look at science. In the universe, everything goes to its natural conclusion. If you see a tree blowing in the wind, it moves naturally because of the wind. Music is the same way. The great bassist Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, would always say, be true to yourself. Be natural. When John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were playing together, each stayed true to his realm.

McCree: Why did you choose Ropeadope to continue your journey?

Harrison: Because it embraces the totality of music that’s out right now. It’s open to new ideas. I’ve been trying to get other labels to look at releasing multi-genre music since my early days on Impulse. And they always looked at it from a marketing point of view: We’re not gonna spend that much money to put all these songs into all these different marketplaces. But Ropeadope embraced the idea wholeheartedly.

McCree: What do you hope listeners will take away from The Art Of Passion?

Harrison: Well, I hope they enjoy all the music. That people who may not normally listen to hip-hop realize, OK, this is actually good music. And that people who mostly listen to hip-hop get a taste of jazz and see that jazz is something that they should add to their list of musical styles.

McCree: How does New Orleans fit into your musical equation?

Harrison: New Orleans is a root incubator for the world’s music and the cultural home of jazz. Because if you play our traditional songs like “Handa Wanda,” everyone from a 2-year-old to an 80-year-old knows those songs. All the social and economic strata, all of the races. The music and the culture ties us together as one. We all enjoy it and love it together.” DB



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