Share this article

print logo

Sax man; Jazz master brings colorful resume to Buffalo gig

It's been a while since alto saxophonist Donald Harrison has been in Buffalo. In the interim, he's become a regular on the HBO series "Treme," acted in as well as written music for a Jonathan Demme movie and made at least one disc -- "This is Jazz: Live at the Blue Note," a pianoless trio CD with Ron Carter and Billy Cobham -- that was one of the great discs of its year.

He's been here often though.

Consider his gig many decades ago at Joe Rico's Milestones, the club founded by and named after the greatest of all Buffalo jazz DJs, Joe Rico. Once upon an earlier time, that club was the Main and Fillmore location of the original Tralfamadore Cafe.

The terrific quintet co-led by alto saxophonist Harrison and his New Orleans cohort Terence Blanchard played a superb gig there. Harrison remembered the gig well even though he and Blanchard havent' performed together for 30 years at least. He loved that gig in fact, he said.

Buffalo is where the two of them went bowling during the day with their pianist Cyrus Chestnut (whose reputation as a musician was also about to explode). And it's where the co-leaders discovered, said Harrison on the phone, the entirely unexpected fact that their pianist was something of a bowling hustler.

Chestnut told them before they went that he didn't really know how to bowl.

And then "He wiped us out. He got like seven strikes. He was picking up splits. He was picking up spares. We were like standing there with our mouths wide open. He was the most graceful bowler you could ever imagine. He was like the Michael Jordan of bowling. Man, I definitely remember that gig."

The dissolution of the group saw Harrison and Blanchard going separate and different ways. Harrison now says that after the quintet, he made an effort to "really adjust to all the nuances of jazz" as well as immerse himself in "the whole history of the music. I think I achieved that. I think I have a greater understanding of bebop than a lot of players in my generation." But too, he wanted to immerse himself in the full glorious menu of "New Orleans music. That's what I wanted to do -- learn R&B and funk and hip-hop." It all goes into his current music of the sort he'll bring with him to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Art of Jazz series at 8 p.m. Saturday in the gallery auditorium (with a preconcert film about Mardi Gras at 7 p.m.).

And too, he said, of his band: "we slash across the [chord] changes instead of like bebop where you play through the changes." (In his current band are guitarist Detroit Brooks, pianist Zaccai Curtis, drummer Joe Dyson and bassist Max Moran.)

Harrison's deep immersion in New Orleans musical culture -- including Native American -- is particularly poignant considering that his history during the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in 2005 was very much the wrenching dislocation of the majority of his neighbors.

The flood wiped his family out, literally. "Everyone had to leave," he said. "I'm one of the people that lost everything. Eighty percent of the people in New Orleans lost everything. I went to Baton Rouge. We started out in a hotel and wound up in an apartment -- me and my family. My mother went to Houston with my sisters."

It was 2007 before he was able to move back to his home city.

His recurring role on "Treme" -- David Simon's HBO show about New Orleans' musical life, among other things -- stemmed in large part from a previous, rather remarkable role in Demme's movie of Jenny Lumet's script "Rachel Getting Married." Not only did Harrison write the wildly varied music for Demme's film, he appeared in it as one of the cherished wedding guests -- the leader of the band.

Director Demme knew Harrison's mother. And for some reason, the two of them often seemed to be in the same town at the same time.

Once in Cleveland, Demme showed up at a Harrison club gig and asked him if he might appear in his movie. "He already had it mapped in his mind that I had the personality to try to achieve what he was trying to achieve in the movie." Demme "gave me a tutorial about acting that really turned on a light switch for me." And led him to his role on nine episodes of "Treme."

About the life he leads now, he says, quite understandably "I'm pinching myself." It remains real.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

PREVIEW    

WHAT: Art of Jazz with Donald Harrison    

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday    

WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.    

TICKETS: $29 general, $25 gallery members    

INFO: 270-8700, www.albrightknox.org