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Craig Harris

Craig Harris: Bone Structure By Eugene Holley, Jr. 

The stylistic range of the jazz trombone spans from the second line parades of New Orleans, to the outer limits of the avant garde. And for 45 years, the Long Island-born, Harlem-based trombonist-composer Craig Harris has been one of the most eclectic and enduring masters of his instrument. With J.J. Johnson as his prime influence—along with Miles Davis and John Coltrane—Craig’s nine recordings as a leader, from Black Bone (1981) to Souls Within the Veil (2005), based on W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, reveal his comprehensive musicianship, from late 20th Century post-bop to James Brown. His equally diverse 39 recordings as a sideman include his work with Sun Ra, Abdullah Ibrahim, Cecil Taylor and hip-hop ensemble The Roots.

A member of Harlem Jazz Boxx, a mobile, jazz/gospel performance consortium since 2014, on May 1, Craig plays at the annual Harlem Derby Music Fest, a musical component of a festival that celebrates the Kentucky Derby with fashion and food, and also pays homage to the Black jockeys who were a part of its early history. Craig leads a group consisting of pianist Yoichi Uzeki, vocalist Carla Cook, bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Tony Lewis. Harlem has been Craig’s base of operations for the past 20 years, and for him, jazz begins at home.

“Harlem is the homeland,” Craig points out. “I'm walking the streets with James Reese Europe, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Malcolm stood on the same corner right here…so much of the history is there. And I’ve been really spending my last 20 years making music in the community.”

Craig’s community extends from Harlem to The Windy City via the score he composed for the Oscar-nominated motion picture Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic about the young Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who was gunned by the police in 1969. The director of the film is Shaka King, Craig’s nephew, who asked his uncle to write the soundtrack. Craig’s first foray into film scoring, which also features variations of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s masterpiece The Inflated Tear, allows him to draw from the excellent education he received from Ken Makanda McIntyre’s music program at SUNY College at Westbury, where Craig graduated in 1976. “We’ve got a long tradition of great African American composers like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter and J.J. Johnson,” he observes. “And it’s only because of racism that a lot of new people are not in Hollywood doing these films. I hope this [opportunity] opens the door for me, and for other people, to do more films.” 

On Judas, Craig originally wanted to improvise the score in the style of Miles Davis’ haunting 1958 French film soundtrack Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud/Elevator to the Gallows, but the pandemic altered his plan. With the assistance of veteran Hollywood film composer Mark Isham, Craig worked for months putting together elements of the music, and in September, he assembled an orchestra in the Manhattan Center to record. “Everything was COVID-19 compliant,” Craig notes. “We had 60 to 70 musicians who were spaced 12 feet apart. The woodwind instruments were in cubicles. The music had to be in plastic bags, and put on the stand before people touched it. And they took [the musicians’] temperatures. COVID-19 forced us to get into the future with technology, and that’s one of the most positive things about it.”

Craig embraces technology through the various multimedia projects he leads. They include TriHarLenium, a musical portrait of Harlem from 1976 to 2006 before the coming of gentrification; God’s Trombones, a music-theatre opus inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 book of poetry based on Black sermons; Slide Ride, a trombone quartet and recording consisting of Craig, Ray Anderson, Art Baron and Earl McIntyre; and the aforementioned Souls Within the Veil.

Craig’s forthcoming CD—scheduled for a spring release—will include selections from Souls Within the Veil, along with music inspired by Judas and the Black Messiah and by Craig’s observations of a New York City depopulated by the pandemic. “A lot of the music I wrote didn’t get into the film,” Craig says, “we need to record some of that music. I went down to Times Square…it’s like a ghost town. So I went through my archives. I got 15 years of music, and chose the things I wanted to record. I need to document this history.”

Craig Harris performs with vocalist Carla Cook, pianist Yoichi Uzeki, bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Tony Lewis at the Harlem Derby Music Fest on May 1 in front of The Cecil. 

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Ray Gallon

Ray Gallon: Meet Mr. Bow-Tie By Raul daGama

Ray Gallon is Mr. Bow-Tie; perhaps not the first because bassist Ron Carter used those words as a title for a song on his album Mr Bow-tie (Blue Note, 1995). But Ron wouldn’t mind if the honorable title passes on to one he calls a “talented composer, arranger…and my dear friend.” Ray deserves that moniker for the Satie-like, melting sartorial eloquence of his minimalist aesthetic. Stretching the metaphor further, and in keeping with Satie’s iconic Gymnopédies suite, Ray’s music unfolds like dancing black dots that come alive in long, sculpted phrases, and lines that leap off the page, pirouetting in soaring, airy balletic maneuvers as he caresses the piano keys. This uncommon eloquence is soon going to be heard throughout the repertoire of his debut trio album Make Your Move (Cellar Music, 2021) due out this month.

You might not be alone if you have not heard Ray lately. In 2020, the world seemed to stop spinning with the worst pandemic in more than 100 years, putting a proverbial garrote on the arts. But for at least three decades before that, Ray has inhabited the often shadowy piano chair with some of the world’s most celebrated musicians: Sheila Jordan, Ron Carter, George Adams, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Benny Golson, Jon Hendricks and scores of other greats. “Yes, that was quite a ride,” he opines shyly, “I was always lucky to be in the right place at the right time.” There have, in fact, been many right places in Ray’s life so far. 

“As a teenager,” he reminisces, “I worked at J&R Records and manned the jazz records bin, where my friend Kenny Washington, used to come by after school. I was coming from a blues background and Kenny tuned me on to who was who in jazz.” Ray’s real education began with Jaki Byard, the piano-playing partner in the greatest bands of Charles Mingus. “Jazz music history flowed out of Jaki’s fingers, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk…all in a span of three minutes,” Ray marvels. “He would write wonderful things for me to practice. He was all about getting me to learn things with my left hand: ‘Get that rhythm going and make it swing,’ Jaki would say.” 

Jazz history, the rudiments of blues and jazz rhythm, harmonic intervals as well as a sense of classical decorum was something that Ray’s other mentor, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, taught him to value. It’s an important aspect of what he has carried throughout his life, along with the experience of listening to Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles and other luminaries. Being a part of this hallowed continuum is something Ray views with a sense of reverence. “It’s my sacred duty to get the right things right,” he almost whispers. “That’s also what I tell my students at City College, NY, where I teach,” he adds.

Ray has been living the music’s history, accompanying some of the finest musicians and playing behind vocalists who tell all the jazz stories and bring—and keep—the history of this great music alive. “Sheila teaches the art of listening,” he recalls. He learned that from playing for her workshops and accompanying her in live performances. “Ray is very, very special. A wonderful jazz player,” Sheila says of him. But Ray is also a composer of considerable repute. His works have been recorded by George Adams, T.S. Monk and The Harper Borthers; his playing lauded by the legendary Ahmad Jamal who lavishes praise on Ray, noting references to one of their mutual heroes Art Tatum.

The latter lavishes praise on Ray. “While I in no way intended to emulate Tatum directly (I couldn’t if I tried!), I was inspired to utilize a few of his devices—the way he transitions from rubato into a spirited tempo through an ostinato bass line, his remarkably dissonant voicings and that little riff he plays to signal the end of each chorus,” says Ray of his rendition of “Yesterdays,” one of the songs that appears on Ray’s debut album. Musicians like Ray also know that you can write all the “heads” and “bridges” you want, but it’s only after work-shopping the music before an audience that the music feels truly complete. All that is about to happen at a momentous event for Ray when he previews his new work on stage via Zoom May 9. 

 

Ray Gallon performs a solo concert followed by a Q&A via Zoom at Global Music Foundation May 9.

Photo Credit: Anna Yatskevich

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Jerry Weldon

Jerry Weldon: I’m A Player By George Kanzler

Tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon can’t wait to get out of pandemic lockdown. 

“I’d like to get out on the road again,” says Jerry from his home in New Brunswick. “I’m a player, I like to get out there and play. I’ve never had a steady teaching job, I’d just rather be a player.”

Jerry was already a player when he was in the jazz program at Rutgers in the late 1970s (he graduated in 1981), gigging around New Jersey and New York. “[Hammond B3 organ player] Bobby Forrester took me under his wing when I was still at Rutgers and I played gigs with him all around the New York, New Jersey area,” Jerry remembers. “I always liked the tenor-organ thing.” Playing with Bobby, and later with organists Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and others cemented Jerry’s love of the organ-tenor combo sound. In fact, he reveals that his first live date in more than a year will be with organist Joey DeFrancesco in Austin, Texas, next month. “It’s a two-tenor gig, with me and Doug Lawrence on tenors—maybe three tenors if Joey breaks out his.” (Joey has added tenor to his arsenal of organ and trumpet in the past two years.)  

Jerry became a road musician immediately after leaving Rutgers, joining Lionel Hampton’s big band, where he stayed for six years, touring almost constantly. He laughs when asked how many times he’s played the famous solo—originated by Illinois Jacquet—on “Flying Home.”

“Every night I was with Hamp,” he says. “I actually learned it before I joined the band, and it’s so engraved in my memory; I don’t need the chart anymore. I just played it again recently at a virtual concert by the Lionel Hampton Reunion Band at SOPAC in South Orange.”

So how was he able to keep up the energy on that very extroverted solo night after night?

“Hamp’s energy was so infectious,” Jerry recalls, “he had that fire in him that just pulled the band along with him. You had to get on his wavelength; he brought it every single time. That was a real blessing for me, especially as a young guy coming out of college. We were lucky in those days because we still had [the great big band leaders] Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie around, and all of them were hiring young guys, guys like me who couldn’t wait to get out on the road with these legends. I was fortunate to catch the last little piece of that.”

After leaving Hamp, Jerry played around New York and on the road, often in organ combos. But in 1990 he was invited to join one of the few new big bands that would hit the road touring. “Harry Connick, Jr. was in Hamp’s band briefly, and one day on the bus he told me he was hoping to form his own big band and would I like to join it,” says Jerry. “And he was a man of his word, calling me when he was putting the band together.”

In June of that year, Jerry played the first concert by Harry’s big band, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He’s been a member of Harry’s big—and smaller—bands ever since. In fact, they were on tour in March 2020 when the pandemic put a stop to live performances. Although pandemic isolation has curtailed Jerry’s playing for audiences, he admits he’s had plenty of time to practice. “And I’ve been doing a lot more writing and arranging,” he declares. “I’m putting together music—standards and originals—for a sextet, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums, I hope to record with. I’d also love to make a ‘with strings’ album. And work with a singer—put together a band like Houston Person and Etta Jones, tenor and singer, but I’m still not sure what singer I would like yet.”

But most of all, Jerry wants to get out on the road and be a player again.

Jerry Weldon leads a trio with organist Kyle Koehler and drummer Jerome Jennings in a virtual concert from Jazz Forum on May 13.

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Nicki Parrott

Nicki Parrott: Making the Most of the Lockdown By Don Jay Smith