Donald Harrison: The Mardi Gras Indians Meet Modern Jazz

By , Columnist
If you're a fan of Treme, the acclaimed HBO series about the New Orleans neighborhood on which Congo Square was sited, you may recall the characters Delmond Trumbeaux, a trumpeter (played by Rob Brown), and his father, Albert Lambreaux, a plasterer who doubles as a Big Chief of the Mardi Gras Indian group, the Guardians of the Flame (played by Clarke Peters). Both characters are drawn from the personal biography of alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr., who observed his 51st birthday last night  by launching a Thursday-through Saturday run at Manhattan's Jazz Standard with his working quintet, three Mardi Gras Indian percussionists, and, on percussion and voice, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers.

Known as "Duck" to his friends, Harrison, who inherited his father's position as Big Chief himself the son of a Big Chief, is not only a virtuoso on his instrument, but a key figure in the way 21st century jazz musicians think about sound and rhythm. His c.v. includes consequential stints with drum icons Art Blakey and Roy Haynes, with the influential Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet of the 1980s, and, since 1990, Latin jazz pioneer Eddie Palmieri's Afro-Caribbean Octet. He comes as close as anyone from his generation at transforming the saxophone into an analogue for the human voice.

"The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people," he told me some years back. "That's why I say it's all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it's all said and done, what do you feel?"

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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