ALEX HARDING / “Alex Harding Mixtape”
Alex Harding’s main instrument is the baritone saxophone. He doubles on bass clarinet and can play almost any single reed instrument. The baritone is the least employed of the four major saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor & baritone). In the jazz context, four influential names outline the big horn’s place. Beginning in the swing era, it was Harry Carney who anchored the Ellington Orchestra saxophone section for over forty years. During the bebop revolution there was my man Cecil Payne. Gerry Mulligan followed immediately thereafter and became a major purveyor of the cool jazz style. Coltrane era modern jazz up to the present, Hamiet Bluiett has been the dominant sound.
Harry Carney was the first person I heard use circular breathing, enabling him to hold a note seemingly forever or for at least as long as he felt like doing so. Carney was known for the richness of his bottom sound. The major stylistic development happened with Blueitt who is known for his unparalleled technique. Bluiett could play as fast as the fleetest alto saxophonist but more than just fast, he could play higher in the altissimo range of the horn than nearly any other saxophonist living or deceased—and that’s saying a whole lot.
Now on the scene is Mr. Alex Harding. To my ears, Alex is an extension of Harry Carney in the fullness of his sound but what I really, really dig is Harding’s bluesy adventurousness. He has a swagger and doesn’t hesitate to blow highly imaginative solo flights which are harmonically sophisticated but at the same time anchored in a burly blues sound that is emotionally enticing. He plays like I imagine Rashaan Roland Kirk would have played the baritone had not my man been busy playing three other horns at one time. (And, hold your horses, yes, we do have some Rashaan in the not to distant BoL future.)
As far as music goes, I’m a jazz lover and a Coltrane freak. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to plan out BoL line-ups and keep it diverse. I could do jazz from now until I die and not cover all the music I want to share. At the same time, I am aware that most of our readers are not as into jazz as I am and moreover that there is so many other types of black music that I want to share—plus, there is not a ton of commercially available recent jazz recordings I’m really crazy about. All of which means that I post less jazz than I’d like to share.
I’m really, really high on Alex Harding, so here’s more than an hour of honest modern jazz by a Detroit native who gives props to his homeboy baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. Adams was a stalwart of the hard bop scene and recorded a whole series of lover-ly albums with trumpeter Donald Byrd. (Like I said there’s a ton of music yet to be posted—BoL is going to be around for a long, long time.)
Anyway, Alex Harding is doing something really interesting: he’s combining a blues sound with modern jazz (including avant garde) stylistic developments. Plus, he’s exciting in how he utilizes various genres and styles of music.
His mixtape opens with an obviously church influenced composition called “Spirit Take My Hand.” The composition is from his The Calling album featuring Harding’s Blutopia band: Alex Harding: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Lucian Ban: piano; Brad Jones: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums; Andrew Daniels: percussion. The same band follows with “Southern Dawn,” a composition that has a Randy Weston-like roll to it with it’s bad bass line over which Harding roots down and triumphantly bellows like a rutting bull at breeding time. My man handles up on his horn. Indeed, the whole 2006 Blutopia recording is one of the best small combo releases in a long time.
The next three tracks are from the duo of Harding with pianist Lucian Ban who was born in Teaca, a small village near to Cluj, a city in the Transylvania region of Romania. Ban is a Romanian expatriate based in New York City. Harding and Ban are virtually a partnership, gigging and recording with each other. Their simpatico nature of their collaboration is fully evident in the beautiful duets on their 2002 release, Somethin’ Holy.
At just over 19-minutes long, “Time for Trane/Night On Earth” is the piece de resistance. Not only is it a homage to Coltrane, it’s also a remarkably spiritual workout that blossoms like a night flower, slowly and gracefully but also with intensity and huge emotional outpourings.
The “African Flower” piece manages to pay its respects to Duke Ellington in its sound and Abdullah Ibrahim in its approach, which is fitting as South African pianist Ibrahim was mentored by Ellington. But it’s more than just passing references. Harry Carney was also the first major bass clarinetist of jazz and on this number Harding unfurls the richest baritone clarinet sound I’ve heard since some of the brilliant work of Eric Dolphy.
The title selection, “Somethin’ Holy,” is the feature on which Harding let’s loose with rippling phrases that sound somewhat like what Jim Hendrix would have sounded like if Jimi played a baritone. Hear all those wild leaps on the unaccompanied opening section, and then after a brief piano interlude and a slow build-up Harding takes us on another emotional ride before closing out with a heady mix of slow gospelish theme statement and blues-toned bottom notes.
The next track is from a 2006 recording, Tuba Project, which features Lucian Ban (Piano), Alex Harding (Baritone), J.D. Allen (Tenor), Bob Stewart (Tuba), Derrek Phillips (Drums). Along with Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart is one of the most active and accomplished tuba players on the contemporary music scene. With a front line of tenor, baritone on top of a tuba, you might think their sound would be brooding and ponderous but there is both an astounding agility and an interesting variety in how they arrange their music. It’s far, far, far from a boring sound.
In 2002 Harding and Ban co-led a quintet that recorded Premonition in a quintet context—Lucian Ban (Piano), Alex Harding (Baritone Sax), Erik Torrente (Alto Sax), Chris Dahlgren (Bass), Damion Reid (Drums). This is another manifestation of varied and rewarding music. The fact that Harding and Ban are able to produce fine recordings in a variety of contexts working with a wide range of musicians bespeaks the seriousness and competency of this duo. They are not just occasionally lucky. These guys know what they’re doing.
“Premonition” features a fine dual solo by Harding and Torrente who adroitly manage to blow freely without one over-powering the other during the tandem solo. “Chakra” is just plain beautiful, meditation music. Given the strong bluesyness of Harding’s baritone, the shimmering beauty of his solo on “Chakra” is a testament to this man’s sensitivity.
Reared on (and some would say, limited by) what we hear incessantly in the popular media, many people will find this music challenging. Of course it helps to know all the references and antecedents, but the passion is there. Even if you are not familiar with this kind of music, the lines are cleanly played and with the exception of “Time for Trane/Night On Earth,” the music is short enough that most listeners will not be worn out by seemingly endless improvisation.
Alex Harding is an advanced but not inaccessible musician. He has a strong melodic sense, plays well structured, succinct solos that are easy to grasp on first listen even though they are also adventurous. I think it’s Harding’s blues-based sound that makes his heavy music go down lightly. While some other players may be getting more press, you’d be hard-pressed to find another young saxophonist who has issued a stirring string of high caliber recordings. From composition to improvisation, from duets to ensembles, Alex Harding, especially in combination with pianist Lucian Ban, is someone who is worthy of your full attention.
The fact that Alex Harding is one of only a handful of excellent baritone saxophonist on today’s jazz scene is not as important as the fact that Harding is one of the best jazz musicians currently recording. You may never have heard a jazz baritone saxophonist before but this is one cat who can turn you on to the wonders of the big horn. Check him out.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Alex Harding Mixtape Playlist
One of the major difficulties for jazz musicians is getting their music distributed and getting their recordings heard. Record stores are a thing of the past and unless one has a super-sized budget there are very few avenues for letting the jazz public know about your recording, especially given that the audience for jazz is both smaller and more diverse than ever. The number of jazz fans in any one location is probably less than at any time in the history of the music but at the same time there are literally strong enclaves of fans all around the world. Enter the internet.
Even if you know about him, it’s difficult to get Harding’s recordings. Fortunately, the very thing that has delivered the death knell to traditional record stores, is simultaneously the salvation of the independent jazz musician. All of the recordings below are available from iTunes.
If you are a jazz fan, support the music, buy the music, share the music with friends and family.
01 “Spirit Take My Hand” - The Calling
02 “Southern Dawn” - The Calling
03 “Time for Trane/Night On Earth” - Somethin' Holy
04 “African Flower” - Somethin' Holy
05 “Somethin' Holy” - Somethin' Holy
06 “Hieroglyphics” - Tuba Project
07 “Premonition” – Premonition
08 “Chakra” - Premonition
This entry was posted on Monday, September 7th, 2009 at 1:02 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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