Bang the drum loudly

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 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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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