Harry Allen: Timeless Machine

Wherever lyrical, swinging, classic tenor saxophone is needed, Harry Allen answers the call

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Harry Allen
By Jeff Tamarkin
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Harry Allen and Rebecca Kilgore record in New York, October 2008
By Fran Kaufman
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Chuck Riggs, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes & Bill Cunliffe at Feinstein's, NYC, 3-12
By Jeff Tamarkin

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Simply put, Harry Allen has it all. He’s consistently reliable and endlessly adaptable, swinging and inventive, thoughtful and resourceful, smooth and bold—and, this counts for a lot: easygoing, affable and, especially, tireless. On tenor saxophone, he has graced so many stages and so many recordings over the past two and a half decades, both as a sideman and a leader—he’s made more than 40 albums under his own name for the Japanese market alone—that any attempt to patch together a résumé would be a futile exercise.

Then there’s his versatility. Allen’s most recent releases in the American market include collaborations with keyboardists Larry Goldings, Ehud Asherie and Rossano Sportiello and a live tribute to Billie Holiday and Lester Young, cut at Michael Feinstein’s New York nightclub with vocalist Rebecca Kilgore. Kilgore is also featured, along with vocalist Eddie Erickson, on a trio of albums from the enduringly popular Broadway musicals Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and, most recently, The Sound of Music. A scroll through Allen’s discography reveals tributes to Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Zoot Sims, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini and Count Basie, but also to British songwriters, classic American soul music, New York City, the James Bond films and, on a 2011 release, Rhythm on the River, those poetic bodies of water.

He’s cut Brazilian sets with Trio da Paz (Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca) and a group featuring guitarist Dori Caymmi, a rhythm section and four cellos, and has established longstanding working relationships with father-and-son guitarists Bucky and John Pizzarelli and fellow tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, whom Allen considers a mentor. And that’s not even touching on his prolific accompanist work, a fine recent example of which is guitarist Gerry Beaudoin’s The Return.

So the guy is prolific and versatile. But just how good is he? “He’s got everything,” says Bucky Pizzarelli. “You give him something to play and he’ll give you the best solo you’ve ever heard. He did a record date when [my son] John brought him out to California, with Johnny Mandel, to overdub a tenor sax solo. He did it the first time. Johnny said, ‘Does this guy ever make a mistake?’ I love playing with him; he’s unbelievable.”

“Working with him in the studio is a breeze,” says Kilgore. “He can make decisions very quickly and they’re good decisions. He’s fast and he’s got great ideas.”

That seemingly bottomless well of creativity accounts for a large chunk of Allen’s appeal to fellow musicians and keeps him gainfully employed. The other factor is his innate ability to process a stunningly broad palette of song material. “I’ve yet to find a tune Harry does not know,” says Sportiello, the Italian pianist who has served in Allen’s quartet for the past four years. The pair recently collaborated on Conversations, a series of duets on compositions drawn from the songbook of lyricist Johnny Burke, most of them co-written by Jimmy Van Heusen. “He’s got incredible facility playing at any tempo, in any key, and within different jazz styles, always with great taste and an excellent quality of sound and powerful swing. His time and pitch are perfect and he can improvise like a volcano, phrase after phrase, and you’ll never hear him playing patterns or repeated licks.”

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Allen’s skills are undeniable, but what drives him? As he explains it, he just likes to play. In fact, Allen admits, he’s perfectly content even to perform a song he doesn’t care for. For many of his thematic albums, he leaves repertoire decisions up to the label head. His own job, Allen surmises, is simply to make the best of what’s handed to him. “When I was very young, doing one of my first tours,” Allen says in his Manhattan apartment, the afternoon after a sideman date with Freddy Cole at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, “I was touring with this old guitar player, Dickie Thompson. He was of that generation that was really into teaching the young kids what’s right and what’s wrong. He said you have to play every song like it’s your favorite song in the world. I argued with him and said, ‘No, you play songs that you want to play,’ and later on I realized he was absolutely right. It doesn’t matter how good a tune it is—you could hate the tune—but you have to play it like it’s your favorite tune in the world. That comes in very handy when I’m doing projects where I really don’t care what tunes they give me to play. I’ll play them like they’re my favorite tune and find what is musical or different.”

Fortunately, Allen is rarely put into a position where he’s confronted by a song with no redeeming qualities. A traditionalist with a penchant for the Great American Songbook and other time-tested material, he’s more often than not able to apply his golden chops to a song worthy of him. During a recent gig at Feinstein’s in Manhattan, where he was accompanied for the first set by his regular bandmates bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs, as well as pianist Bill Cunliffe (subbing for Sportiello), Allen, attired and coiffed meticulously, called songs as they occurred to him (“I despise setlists,” he says later): “Skylark,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” Woody Herman’s “Apple Honey.” Playing with confidence, the band as tight as bands get, Allen—who describes his own sound as “big, round and warm with a lot of air in it”—explored every nook and cranny of every melody. Hints of his key influences—Hamilton, Sims, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young—occasionally bubbled up, but there was no imitation; he owned every note.

For the remainder of the evening, the band was joined by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, both of whom turned up the heat considerably. Allen grooved right along, his solos taking on a rougher, tougher punch, reminiscent of the late ’40s R&B honkers. Yet even in this new guise he managed to retain his smoothness and grace. “It’s very easy for jazz guys to fall into certain categories like ‘He’s a swing-type player’ or ‘He can sound like Stan,’ but he’s so much more than that,” says Cunliffe. “Harry has a very open sound and phrasing that lets the music go to many different places. I like that he doesn’t play a lot of notes when a few notes will work, and I enjoy the way he plays with time. He’s an intelligent improviser and he’s got a real rollicking boisterousness when it’s called for. He’s got many nuances to his sound and it’s an authentic expression.”

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Harry Allen is an old schooler, to be sure. Although he occasionally acquiesces to relatively contemporary material—he’s recorded Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder tunes and plans, honestly, to record Madonna’s “Material Girl”—he’s clearly more comfortable around music written before his 1966 birth. And he’s a purist of sorts: “The important thing to me when I’m recording any song is to not lose the intention of the song,” he says. “With a few exceptions I won’t record a song unless I’ve looked at the sheet music. If you get the actual sheet music then you have what the composer either wrote or hired an arranger to write; it’s the actual sanction. I’ll change some things around, but I try not to lose the overall picture.”

Allen has written some, but when his internal quality control mechanism kicks in it usually prevents him from following through. “The jazz industry as a whole has too low of a standard for what’s good with originals,” he says. “The great songwriters wrote great songs; there’s a whole slew: Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter. But not everybody writes great songs. I write hundreds of songs and I throw most of them in the trash. Every now and then I’ll write one that I think is good and I’ll record it.”

When he does go into a studio, that same respect for authenticity guides him. The gimmickry that allows virtually anyone today to create a recording by patching and tweaking electronically is not his style. “When you listen to Ellington,” he says, “even when the horns are playing you can hear every note of the rhythm section. Duke is comping very sparsely for the most part and leaves a lot of space. I do most of my records by putting everyone in a good room and letting them play, without headphones. If there’s one bad note or a squeak I might use something to fix it, but most of the records I’ve done lately, we’re all in the same room with a very minimum amount of baffles. A lot of studios nowadays are acoustically dead and then they add in the room sound electronically. That is stupid. In an acoustically dead room, you feel like you can’t get a good sound. That’s not music—music is together.”

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Allen’s musical preferences follow a straight line back to his childhood, when his big-band drummer father played recordings by Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and the like around the Allen home—which shifted from Maryland to L.A. and eventually to Rhode Island. “It’s compelling music and it drew me in right away. It’s so well done,” he says. “By the time I was hanging out with friends who were listening to pop music, I would listen to it and say, ‘That’s not good.’”

Allen’s first instrument was the accordion; he and his accordion-playing sister gigged with dad on drums. But, explains Allen, “Long before I started playing accordion I knew I wanted to play saxophone.” Following an unhappy attempt at clarinet, he finally landed where he was meant to be. He played in a school band at Rutgers University, then landed his first professional gig when Bucky Pizzarelli hired him to replace Zoot Sims at a New Jersey gig. “Dizzy Gillespie walked in,” Allen recalls. “I was so scared, I was shaking like a leaf.”

Early associations with tenorist Hamilton, bassist Major Holley and drummer Oliver Jackson boosted Allen’s profile, and it was John Pizzarelli who introduced Allen to Japanese producer Ikuyoshi Hirakawa. Allen began recording albums exclusively for the Japanese market, cutting some 30 titles for BMG Japan and another 10, give or take, for Hirakawa’s own label, averaging two per year for most of the past two decades.

Concurrently, Allen’s American discography has expanded steadily since his debut as a leader, How Long Has This Been Going On?, was released in 1988 on the Progressive label. Most of his recent releases have alternated between the Arbors and Challenge labels. For the latter, Allen recently completed his fifth recording with Hamilton and also released Rhythm on the River, which features Sportiello, Forbes and Riggs, with Warren Vaché blowing cornet on such tracks as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River).” Like all of Allen’s Challenge projects, the theme was suggested to him by label head Chris Ellis, who also assembled the track list. “I’m very happy to do that,” says Allen. “I love learning new tunes and finding gems. Chris will send me a list of tunes and I’ll know some of them and not know a lot of them and I’ll go and learn them.”

Arbors’ The Sound of Music, 14 familiar numbers such as “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do Re Mi” and “My Favorite Things,” includes the regular current quartet as well, with Kilgore and Erickson providing vocals. Guitarist Joe Cohn, a longtime member of Allen’s group, is also present. “It was made during the period when we were switching from guitar to piano and we did several records with both of them,” says Allen.

In concert, Allen usually eschews the thematic approach that dominates his recordings and wings it—as he did on the night when Cunliffe, Gordon and Pelt sat in—but occasionally he likes to rally around a set of related songs. On the first Monday of April, for Allen’s regular Feinstein’s gig, the entire crew that made The Sound of Music assembled at the upscale nightclub to perform the music live, and this summer Allen and Kilgore plan to reprise a show they put on last year and recently recorded: “Some Like It Hot: The Music of Marilyn Monroe.” Another recurring gig for Allen involves a saxophone quartet called the Four Others (with tenors Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart and bari Gary Smulyan), based on a concept originated by Woody Herman.

One place you’re unlikely to find Allen is in a downtown club blowing free, but then again, you never know. “I’ll tell you a funny story,” says Allen, laughing as he begins. “I was doing a concert once, and I sometimes do play avant-garde saxophone. I’ll do it at soundchecks and stuff, just fooling around. At the rehearsal I did that and the guys in the band started laughing and saying, ‘You’ve got to do that on the show!’ So I did it at one of the concerts, and the applause I got for playing the way I regularly do and the applause I got for playing as out as I could play was exactly the same.”

That flexibility, and the ease with which he goes with the flow, is at the core of his being. “Harry is a great guy,” says Sportiello, “and he carries himself well in any type of situation, musical or social. Most of all he is a very loyal person, a distinguished gentleman.”

Kilgore echoes those sentiments, adding, “So many jazz musicians are difficult to get along with or have big egos, but Harry just flies in the face of that stereotype. He’s so calm. He’s not ruffled even when people around him are ruffled. He’s a joy to work with. … Plus, he may be the best musician that I know.”

Originally published in June 2012

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