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For no small portion of North Texas music fans, the sound is unmistakable. The soulful electric piano runs, the swinging hi-hat rustle, the strolling bass line. The three intertwine to form the opening salvoes of "Manitou Inclined," the fiery first track on the new Earl Harvin Trio album Unincorporated on Two Ohm Hop. The track starts out with the musicians--bassist and guitarist Fred Hamilton, drummer Earl Harvin and piano and keyboard player Dave Palmer--establishing a melodic motif over which they begin layering rhythmic textures and harmonic nuance until the melody virtually evaporates into a free-wheeling tumult of activity. Out of this roiling maelstrom, the three effortlessly return to the melody some five minutes into the song, as if it were lurking just below the ruckus the whole time.
It recalls the sort of sonic spree that the band flies off into during its live sets, where the trio is liable to leap in any direction at the drop of a single note, playing tennis without the proverbial net. "In a lot of ways, it's really the first record of the way the band's been playing for the past several years," Palmer says from his home in Austin. "I feel like we've finally made a record where we had time to make what we wanted. We feel like it's an accurate representation of what we've been doing."
"I think it's two things," Harvin says. "I think it's a really good representation of where we're at, and I think it's a really good indicator of what we can do in the future, because it was the first time where in the studio we could really extrapolate on our ideas."
After 1995's Trio/Quartet and 1997's Strange Happy, two commendably straight-ahead jazz albums, and 1999's sprawling epic Live at the Gypsy Tea Room, all on the sorely missed Leaning House Records label, the Trio is trying something a little bit new. It moves into the genre-defying realm that it's flirted with live, especially in the past year. The band's hallmarks are still there--a fancy for midtempo, organic melodies and rhythmic diversity--but there's a couple of curveballs present as well. The Indian timbre floating through "Debashish" recalls the Sun City Girls' recent Carnival Folklore series and features Hamilton playing a multistring slide guitar he had built in Calcutta, made by Debashish Bhattacharya, who appears on John McLaughlin's Shakti Live in Bombay. For "Lily," Hamilton finger-picks a five-string banjo. And on the three improvisations--named one to three, respectively--the group dabbles in layered electronics and ambient percussion that has it dancing closer to Squarepusher and Spring Heel Jack than anything in the jazz pantheon, even the electric compositions of '70s Miles Davis.
"It's a very unique-sounding record, I think," Palmer says. "And it's the first record where, to me, not only do I like the songs, but when you listen to them in order, the record as a whole is a sort of statement. I think it's a reflection of where our heads are. I hope in some ways it's a rebellious record. It's certainly not intended to be something you put on and listen to while you're fucking your girlfriend."
Part of that rebellion may come into play in the album's overall sound. The exquisitely produced Leaning House albums sounded like jazz albums proper, with instruments panned in the mix according to studio placement. Unincorporated is mixed more like a hip-hop album. It's heavy on the low end and sparing with mid and high range. It lends the album a wide-bodied fatness that suits the Trio well, surprisingly. Whereas Live at the Gypsy Tea Room was the sort of high-quality snapshot that showcases its finer points on audiophile equipment, Unincorporated wouldn't sound out of place pumping out of the windows of a low-rider cruising through Oak Cliff.
Unincorporated is also the Trio's most compositionally diverse album to date. Palmer has always been the principal composer for the band on record, and he has three pieces on this album. But it also features two compositions by Harvin, two by Hamilton, and the three improvisations are credited to the group.
In fact, this egalitarian approach to songwriting is perfectly encapsulated by "Manitou Inclined," the above-mentioned opening track. "That's something Fred wrote in the early 1970s," Harvin says. "And he didn't even bring it in. Dave stumbled on it in Fred's book because we all have copies of each other's music. And without ever having heard the song, just reading it off the paper, he played it the way that Dave would play it, in his style. It's not really the way the song goes, but it ended up being a perfect tune for the band."
"It's also recorded on an album I did in '94 with drummer Ed Soph and a bass player from Portland, Oregon, Dave Treason, so it's been recorded once before, but this is a very different version of it," Hamilton says from his office in Denton. "The piece was written when I was in the Air Force, actually. I was stationed in Colorado Springs, which is right below a little town called Manitou Springs, which inspired the title. And it came out very nicely."
Knowing how competitive musicians can be, you'd expect an artist to be more protective of his work and ideas. That doesn't seem to be an issue in the Trio. This openness is reflected in their performances as well.
"I like playing with them a lot because they're not pigeon-holed into one given style," Hamilton says. "Since we've all played numerous different styles and Earl and Dave are so involved in other formats, we've never been just a jazz trio. So it's much more open. And the personal relationship is very similar. In that I'm a little bit older than them, sometimes that will have some sort of bearing on things, but with these guys it doesn't. We accept each other as good buddies; it's not just a working relationship. And that affects your playing in being able to be loose about everything. We can go into a rock format, we can go into a free format, we can play straight-ahead bebop, we can do a crazy sort of raga thing. Everything's just real flexible, and we always seem willing to go where it's taking us."
Harvin agrees. "A lot of time we don't have set lists when we play live," he says. "I'm sure there have been times where it's kind of comical at the beginning of the show when we're sitting there just sort of looking at each other, like a chess game, waiting to see who's going to move a pawn first. We don't know what we're going to play, but somebody's going to start playing something, and whatever it is, we're going to figure it out."
The group's relaxed, almost carefree, approach to performing captures the interpersonal relationship shared by Hamilton, Harvin and Palmer, too. Where bands--be they rock, pop, jazz or otherwise--have a hard enough time lasting through the years when the band is the focus of their career, the Trio has weathered eight years through some of the most ridiculous circumstances. Both Palmer and Harvin are working musicians, alternating employment between session work and tours that keep them away from home. Hamilton is the director of the Jazz Guitar Center at the University of North Texas. All have had or currently have other original projects as well. For a while, Palmer was living in California. The Trio has even been referred to as Harvin's "side project."
"It's a miracle that the band stayed together all those years, but it took a lot of hard work and sacrifices on everybody's part," Palmer says. "But it's really paid off, and I think we're in a really good head space now."
That good space is being one of the more musically adventurous and singularly recognizable outfits in the state. "The comical thing about that is that the band has evolved over so much time, because in a way this band came together almost by accident," Harvin says. "These days, I almost lament the fact that it's called the 'Earl Harvin Trio,' because it'd be kind of cool if it just had some goofy band name. The reason why it's called that--and I'm not trying to play the modest guy or anything--is because it wasn't even a band to start with. I just booked gigs with people I liked to play with 12 years ago around town."
Those early days also included saxophonists Shelley Carrol (who just released his own new record, A distAnt stAr) and Chris MaGuire, bassist Drew Phelps and keyboard player Ted Cruz, when the "Earl Harvin" nameplate appeared in front of "quartet" and "quintet" as well. A few years passed before it became the core group that appears so musically cohesive onstage today.
"Basically those people that I liked to play with ended up getting narrowed down to Fred and Dave, and it was a band," Harvin says. "Nothing about it was ever really conscious. The only thing that was conscious was that I wanted to have some people around that wanted to play some music that wasn't just wedding-band standards. And it just kind of ended up, because of people moving around and doing other stuff, being Dave and Fred and I playing as a trio. And at that point Fred and Dave started bringing in some of their own music."
Writing and performing original music as a unit was the first step in the evolution of the band. Because they created their material, they became very familiar with it and each other, and it incited an atmosphere for more intuitive improvisation.
The band's next evolution was triggered when Palmer started playing the Rhodes electric piano. "That was really just out of convenience," Harvin says. "We had always enjoyed playing to both a jazz and rock audience, so we'd end up playing in places that didn't have an acoustic piano. But how are we going to play Trees? There's no piano there. So Dave started playing Rhodes, and that became part of the band's sound. And eventually he started looking at it not as a minus and began expanding on it. He could put it through a delay box or a distortion box and start fucking with it. And I think that is the big jump in the band that really started honing our sound."
It's a move that's permitted the Trio to be one of the few local acts that's not bound by the absurd Dallas-Denton provincialism. People come to see them in Dallas. People come to see them in Denton. Hell, people even go to see them in Los Angeles when they pop up out West. And it might be high time that Hamilton, Harvin and Palmer start exploring the possibility that the Trio is something with a secure musical future, rather than that thing they do when they're not busy doing something else.
"With this record coming out now, I feel like we're hitting another level, business-wise as well as musically," Palmer says. "To me, even though we've been together so long, I feel like we're just ready now to get out and try to get exposed to the rest of the world, not just Texas."