By Noah Hubbell
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Art Blakey had a knack for finding young jazz talents and grooming them in his Jazz Messengers group. He helped jump-start the careers of Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, who was just 21 years old when Blakey reached out to him.
More than two decades later, Harrison is keeping that tradition alive by recruiting younger players for his latest band, which includes twenty-year-old pianist Victor Gould and two musicians he taught in his native New Orleans: nineteen-year-old bassist Max Moran and eighteen-year-old drummer Joe Dyson. "You'll be highly surprised at the invention and the maturity of these young musicians," Harrison promises.
From the sound of it, he's had a great deal of influence on the growth of these players while passing on wisdom he learned from Blakey and other jazz greats he's played with over the years.
"Art used to talk to me about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane — all the guys he knew I'd probably like — so he could relay the information firsthand," Harrison recalls. "Maybe since I'm from the last generation, I can relay firsthand information about the guys I played with. I've played songs with Roy Haynes, and he'd say, 'This is the way we played it with Charlie Parker. I know it's not on the record like that, but this is way we played it.'"
Harrison's own experience was similar. From being on the bandstand with Blakey to playing with guys like Blanchard, he knows how the music should sound. "The experience of playing with someone who is doing right every night is invaluable," he says.
Since playing with Blakey, Harrison has recorded a number of albums as a leader, at times traversing musical genres, including his own variation on jazz that he dubbed nouveau swing a decade ago. His most recent endeavor is a series of releases titled 3D, a trilogy comprising one disc focusing on smooth jazz, R&B and funk, one delving into straightahead jazz, and a third devoted to hip-hop. Harrison will have copies of the first two volumes at his upcoming show at Dazzle; he just finished recording the third.
While he's well-versed in quite a few styles, Harrison still finds acoustic jazz the most challenging. But whatever he's playing, his aim is to just enjoy it.
"We're serious," Harrison concludes, "but we're still having fun."