A lot of people think they don’t like jazz—one reason is because most of us don’t hear enough jazz to determine whether we like jazz or not. Another reason is a limitation inherent in all musics: if no one introduces us to a particular style and explains the musical and social context, it is often difficult to understand and appreciate it. It is often said that music is the universal language. The truth is, all music reflects a specific consciousness, the ethos of its era, and the outlook of its creators. What is sublime to one, others may consider incomprehensible gibberish.

At one time jazz was considered the music of the hip, but there is no longer any cache in being a jazz head. Eddie Harris was very aware of this separation and spent part of his career bringing jazz to audiences who didn’t necessarily love jazz and, yet, at the same time he was deeply involved in advancing jazz and not merely engaged in pandering to pop audiences.

Eddie swung to national acclaim on the basis of his swinging version of "Exodus" from an album called Exodus To Jazz. I’m taking “Exodus” from a now discontinued two-CD anthology called Artist’s Choice-Anthology. If you can find it, get it because it gives you perhaps the best overview of Eddie’s career.

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Chicago-born, multi-instrumentalist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934 - November 5, 1996) was a pioneer of the electronic saxophone. At one point he put out an album of comedy. He sang and swang and had a lot of fun, but he also wrote theoretical music texts and was a master technician on his main instrument, the tenor saxophone. As a composer, he is renown for creating one of the major classics of jazz, “Freedom Jazz Dance.” The version we have here is taken from his last recordings, a concert in Germany featuring the GDF big band. The March 1997 release is called The Last Concert (Live).

Eddie Harris, like many jazz musicians of his era, found a warm reception in Europe, even if the audiences were sometimes rhythm-less in their enthusiasm, hence you hear his comments at the end of the scat feature, which was recorded in 2000 on the album, Live In Berlin. Eddie says they stopped the song because some people were clapping out of time, but he doesn’t sound angry about it, merely aware that audience participation is a two-edged sword when you have audiences who are not from the root culture of the music. In a sense, this illustrates the problem of popularizing jazz, even when there is a willing audience, some audiences are not always able to fully participate.

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The cut that best exemplifies Eddie as both a jazz saxophonist and as a popular entertainer is the appropriately titled “Illusionary Dreams.” Recorded live, the arrangement is initially highlighted by an extended acapella solo sequence which begins with Eddie telling the rest of the band “I got it” as he blows chorus after chorus accompanying himself with hums and grunts as he negotiates the changes. Following Eddie’s solo there is a short piano solo. Then it’s Eddie redux. He begins to narrate that this is merely a preview to how the song will sound after they record it. Eddie dreams of an Earth, Wind and Fire-like pop song complete with him singing lead vocals. Eddie notes that the record is scheduled to come out next fall, but, alas, no such recording was ever released.

Post-Seventies jazz never achieved the popular status sought by many musicians. Part of the issue for Eddie Harris is that he never wanted to create an emaciated smooth jazz that was more instrumental pop than fully robust jazz. However, another part of the larger issue is that jazz is no longer a musical advocate of social change but rather jazz has become a mainstream occupation not only appropriate for college graduates but even a desirable vocation. Is the movement of jazz into the mainstream a dream or an illusion?

—Kalamu ya Salaam

         Little did I know....        

Sometimes I wonder where Kalamu finds the time. ... I listen to a lot of music. I was in 'the business' for years. I was a full-time music journalist for a while. Every so often, I even think of myself as an expert. Then Kalamu does one of these posts and I realize all over again how little I actually do know and how much great music there is out there that I've yet to set ears on.

Before yesterday, the only songs I'd heard by Eddie Harris are the ones that show up on hip-hop sample compilations. I pretty much thought of him as a halfway-decent soul-jazz cat who probably made three or four hip cuts before fading off into the sunset. Little did I know....

Ah well, at least I can do what none of y'all can. Beg.

So here goes: Baba, in the next batch of CDs you send me to check out, include all the Eddie Harris you got. Thanks. emoticon

—Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 25th, 2005 at 12:03 am and is filed under Cover. 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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