For a man who has appeared on The Tonight Show a handful of times--most recently, only days ago backing singer-songwriter (and, yes, Madonna's brother-in-law) Joe Henry--Earl Harvin can be made to feel self-conscious rather easily. Take this moment: It is 6:33 p.m. on a Friday, and the patio of the Old Monk is filled with Lower Greenville regulars--frat boys and weekend golf pros, weary old bikers in leather vests, and hot young thangs in slinky summer skirts--who have begun their Memorial Day weekend revelries a bit early. They mix and mingle, chit and chat amongst themselves while waitresses scurry about with Belgian brews in one hand and clean ashtrays in the other.
Then in walks the natty, dreadlocked Earl Harvin dressed to the teeth in gray on black on gray on black; the drummer-composer looks as though he has just stepped out of an advertisement for High Fashion, wearing his suit better than any model or department-store mannequin. The man looks so damned good, he feels it necessary to apologize for his getup, explaining he's got a gig at Terilli's in a couple of hours, backing local tenor-sax wonder and Leaning House Records labelmate Marchel Ivery. He mentions how uncomfortable he feels: dressed up, talking into a tape recorder...like he's, well, trying to be somebody.
"I feel kind of ridiculous," he says, shakily lighting up one of his imported cigarettes. He hunches his shoulders and tries to disappear inside his suit. "I feel so...self-conscious," he insists, sort of smiling and sort of frowning. A few minutes later, he will proclaim he feels "really dorked out sitting here in these clothes looking at this tape recorder."
Self-conscious. It's an adjective he uses to describe himself several times during the course of this interview, and not only referring to his appearance. He uses it when talking about Earl Harvin Trio at the Gypsy Tea Room, the brand-new double-disc marathon Harvin recorded with his trio, which features keyboardist Dave Palmer and bassist Fred Hamilton. Harvin worries that audiences might find the thing too way out, too progressive, too excessive--way too much to ingest all at once. The thing's barely "jazz" at all, whatever that means; it's more prog, avant, ambient, post-jazz...every crit word ever invented to mean forward instead of backward. God forbid anyone think Harvin and his mates were self-conscious when making the record. Lord, it was just the opposite.
At the Gypsy Tea Room is the riveting sound of three men dancing carelessly on the precipice, always looking up and beyond. It's a "jazz" record as performed by men who listen to and who perform punk, pop, hip-hop, trip-hop, you name it--anything but, well, bebop circa 1950-whenever. It's "jazz" at the end of the century, songs melting into riffs blurring into trance-inducing rhythms and melodies that insinuate themselves into the bloodstream. The songs bleed into one another, feed off one another. Sometimes the music threatens to fall apart--maybe a note gets away from its creators, runs free and wild till it's lured back into the fold--but more often than not, the record holds together as one epic whole. At the Gypsy Tea Room is the most ambitious, beguiling, fucked-up brilliant record ever made by a Dallas-based band not named Bedhead; that, by the way, is no hyperbole.
"When I listen to the record now, it kind of takes off in directions I wouldn't have necessarily thought possible five, six years ago," Harvin admits. "But a record like this is inevitable. We were never really a jazz band. All of us have other elements of music, and that's what I've always enjoyed about this band from day one. We're not buried in jazz dogma. I'm playing with guys who listen to Led Zeppelin."
Harvin and his bandmates never intended for At the Gypsy Tea Room to be a double record; they know how difficult such albums are to sell, how imposing it can be for someone to buy two discs when most people never finish one. And the fact is, Leaning House co-owner and the album's producer, Mark Elliott, was a bit apprehensive early on about the prospect of manufacturing and selling a double-disc collection. After all, Leaning House--which has established itself, at least around these parts, as one of the nation's leading jazz labels, meaning it ain't making a damned cent--can ill afford to sell records that, well, don't.
But Elliott ultimately had no choice: The songs, some of which had originally run eight or nine minutes long on Harvin and company's earlier Leaning House releases--Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet (1995) and Strange Happy ('97)--were now expanding to two, three times their original lengths. Harvin and pianist-organist Dave Palmer's compositions--their children--had grown up and grown out of their clothes; they needed room to stretch out, room to hop and skip and jump until they simply ran out of breath. The live record gallops a thousand miles in 137 minutes (and only nine tracks!); one tune, "What I Want to Do to You" (originally the trad-bop lead-off track on Strange Happy), stretches out forever--during which Palmer merrily launches into a few capricious bars of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
"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.
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"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.
Speaking of record-release parties, Mike Morgan and the Crawl will celebrate the release of their new Black Top disc I Like the Way You Work It! on June 5 at Blue Cat Blues. I do believe that new record is--how you say?--the blues.
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