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"It's pretty ambitious," Harvin says of the album, laughing slightly. "I know, I know. And we talked about it. We would have rather had a single disc, but we had too much material. It would have been one of those records like those old Coltrane records where it has, like, three songs on it. We didn't want anyone to feel ripped-off." He laughs again. "We wanted to keep it at a decent price, but we didn't want to have four songs on the record. But one of the best things about playing live is the fact that songs become other things. Usually, the beginning of things and the end of things are...different. Live, we probably played a minute and a half of 'What I Want to Do to You,' but it's 19 minutes long now." He says it as though even he can't really believe it.
Ultimately, At the Gypsy Tea Room offers a snapshot of a band in transition. Harvin, Palmer, and Hamilton now live in separate cities--Hamilton's in Denton, while Palmer's in San Francisco--and, as such, do not have much time to practice together; the stage is often their rehearsal room. All three men have gigs away from their jazz ensemble: Harvin has spent the past few years playing with Seal, in addition to playing with the now-defunct rubberbullet (which broke up last year, in part, because Harvin's schedule rarely allowed time for the band). Not only did he co-write the dance-floor "Latest Craze" on Seal's 1998 album Human Being, but he also plays guitar and bass on the disc. (The two have since parted ways, Harvin says, simply because it was time to move on--and not, he insists, because he found it too confining to play radio-ready pop. His gig with Joe Henry is, for now, a part-time affair.)
Perhaps because the band has evolved outside of a vacuum, Harvin doesn't think of the live album as a giant step forward. To him, the evolution has been inveterate, and whenever he or Palmer or Hamilton do try to talk about such things as direction or growth, they find themselves stumbling over such pointless, mundane words. "It's gonna go where it's gonna go," Harvin says. The new album was simply the inevitable outgrowth of years of performing together--and apart.
"If you were to only hear the two records before it and never heard us play live, it would probably be a really big jump and really self-conscious," Harvin says. "That's the only thing I'm afraid of--seeming self-conscious. Because it really was a natural evolution, and it just sorta happens. We know it happens, because we feel it. But because we all live in different cities, a lot of time we'll all come in with stacks of scribbled-out sheet music, play through the songs a couple of times, then play them at gigs. When we do play, we'll only get together the day before and do the heads of the songs, talk about them a little bit, then play. Luckily, everybody's ears are open enough and receptive enough."
If anything, Mark Elliott was initially worried about adding to the Leaning House roster a record that didn't quite fit his traditionalist-leaning definition of "jazz." At the Gypsy Tea Room ain't no time-capsule piece of bebop, a slice of 1954 served up in 1999. Indeed, Harvin, Palmer, and Hamilton formed the band from the very start to play jazz that danced well to the left of the revered timeline; you will never hear the trio playing "My Funny Valentine," never hear the three men riffling through jazz's yellowing scrapbook for one more bebop standard to close out the set.
Harvin refers, with not a little disdain, to the "arcane skeleton of standards" that fills so many jazzers' set lists. He and his colleagues want no part of that dead history. It was fine when they were students at the University of North Texas, and it's even OK every once and a while during someone else's gig. But their set lists are their own, made up of songs Palmer and Harvin have written--and, sure, the occasional Charles Mingus tune. Yet Harvin would be content if you didn't call it a "jazz" record. In fact, don't.
"Dave, Fred, and I had to go to North Texas last semester to do a jazz clinic," he recounts. "Somebody brought up, 'So, what are the records you guys are listening to?' And between the three of us, the records were, like, Sonic Youth and Tricky. Then Fred, stroking his beard, said, 'Well, the last record I actually listened to was a jazz record by an artist who will remain unnamed, and it was really terrible.' It was just this boring jazz record, like thousands of them that come out every year--records that aren't that much different than they were in 1958. Hey, it was fine for then, but being confined to then is a drag."
So, he is asked, the band will never record "Embraceable You"? He pauses for the drummer's beat.
"No," Harvin says emphatically. He grins. "Not unless we fuck it up."
The Earl Harvin Trio performs at a record-release party June 8 at the Gypsy Tea Room.