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Everette Harp

When you’re conducting an interview with an artist, it’s the hope of the writer that they can establish a rapport with the subject. The last things you want to hear are one-word answers and deadly silences. That’s not a problem with Everette Harp. The saxophonist supreme isn’t the least bit shy to tell you what he thinks about jazz critics, smooth jazz, and record companies. The new album All for You (A400 Music Group) was both a labor and love. After three years away, Everette Harp has come back strong with both with his music and his opinions.

JazzReview: Good afternoon Mr. Harp and thanks for speaking with JazzReview.com. Congratulations on the release of All for You (A440 Music Group), your first new album in three years. I had to steal the CD back from my wife because she was playing it in her new van. Playing it loud and annoying the neighbors. So where ya been, man?

Everette Harp: Just taking a hiatus man. My last record was the last one for Blue Note records and I just kind of stepped away and took a break. I didn’t really feel like shopping for another record deal. I just wasn’t interested at the time. I was out on the road a lot and I had work, so that wasn’t a concern. I just wanted to relax.

Doing the record business is a grind and its one grind after another. You do a record, you put it out and you go sell it. Then you make another record, put it out and sell it. For me, each time I do eats up about two years of my life. I just wanted to play for a while. So that’s what I did. I just played music and didn’t worry about it.

Then, just by chance, I was working with a friend of mine, Brian Bromberg, who plays bass, on a compilation CD for the Smooth Jazz Awards and he asked me to play on a cut. He asked me for a credit reference what label I was on he could put "Everette Harp courtesy of Blue Note Records." I said, "No, I’m no longer with them." He said, "So who are you with?" I said, "No one." Brian said, "Man, I know this label that would chomp at the bit to have you." I told Brian that I hadn’t been shopping for a label. I figured if I were going to sign I should shop for a deal. Turns out I didn’t have to.

A 440 Music Group came to the table with a great deal. Plus, the landscape for record labels is quite a bit different. You have less majors out there. There are only two or three major labels now.

JazzReview: Yeah, there was that recent merger between Sony and BMG.

Everette Harp: I would sit back and think about whose where and everybody seemed pretty sax-heavy. Before you even think about approaching a major label you wonder how much attention you’re going to get. Everybody has a lot of sax players and it just didn’t interest me to approach any major labels. This company (A 440 Music Group) comes along, and they’re a small independent label upstarts and gung-ho about music. They wanted to wine and dine me and then we got married (laughs). We skipped the engagement period and just got married.

JazzReview: Well, the marriage seems to have created an impressive baby in All for You . It’s a heck of an album. But before I go any farther I’ve got to ask you this: I remember watching you play on The Arsenio Hall Show and you’d come on sporting a ponytail and a muscle shirt. I always wanted to know how tall are you?

Everette Harp: I’m 6 foot, 3 inches.

JazzReview: Okay. So you’re not NBA basketball tall, but you do stand out in a crowd. (Laughing) When you go into the studio after a long lay-off how do you approach it? Do you pay any attention to what’s going on in music? How do you decide which musician to use or whether you’re going to play alto or tenor saxophone on a particular song?

Everette Harp: For me it starts with the songwriting. I never gauge it on what someone else is doing. I rarely listen to the radio. Rarely. That way I’m not influenced that much or by the amount of sameness that’s out there. You tend to be drawn into exactly what’s being formulated for radio. I try not to do that. When I do records I like to try and challenge myself to just write good songs. Songs that I would like to play, but not the songs I’ve heard a hundred times. That’s the one thing that makes it difficult to write songs because I try not to do things that sound like something else. That’s been done a lot.

I always make a joke about how hard it is to make records and that someday I’m going to make an album of songs you’ve heard a million times. They will be all-new songs, but they’ll have pieces of songs that will be instantly recognizable. That to me is what seems to be pretty prevalent out there. It’s difficult to be unique when you have such a proliferation of recording artists out there now.

I sit down with a couple of writers like Rex Rideout, Shawn LaBelle and David Kochansky on the album and we just sit and write tunes. At the end of the day we had 24 songs and we picked the best out of those. As far as how I divvy it up per instrument, when a song is written I hear it for a certain instrument in my head. On this record is just so happens that most of the songs were written for alto sax. I have one tenor sax song that was written by Dave Kochansky, "I Remember When," the one I played on with Earl Klugh. I just heard tenor sax on it from the beginning. There’s one soprano sax song ("In the Blink of an Eye"), but everything else is mainly alto.

JazzReview: How do you go about getting an Earl Klugh, Norman Brown or Paul Jackson, Jr. to play on your album? Do you say, "This song would be perfect for Earl or Paul?" Do you just pick up the phone and call?

Everette Harp: Yeah, that’s how I do it. I’ve always done it that way. I always call directly. I’ve never had a middleman call for me. We have personal relationships with each other and if I want a friend to do something for me how ridiculous it would seem to go to their manager to set it up. I just call these guys directly and say, "I’d like to get you on a cut here."

It’s a common practice here in Los Angeles. I call Paul up like I always have and say, "Dude, I have a session here. When are you available?" Basically, that’s all it takes. People like Earl Klugh or Norman Brown, on the other hand, this is the first time I’ve collaborated with them on one of my records. It works pretty much the same way. Norman, you have to find out what his availability is and what the restrictions are if any regarding the record company and if he can do it. Earl was great about it. I called him up and he said, "Man, I’d love to do it." It was fairly simple.

JazzReview: You’ve appeared on a lot of albums by other artists. Who would you like to get on one of your albums that you’ve never been able to get.

Everette Harp: What you have to remember is that I was hired to play on those records. Anita Baker rarely records on another person’s record. I’d love to get her on one of mine, but I think I’d have a better chance of climbing Mt. Everest. That’s just something she doesn’t do. I think she believes it dilutes what she does.

In the situations where I’m hired to play with someone, they hire me to do what I do. That basically means, "come out and play sax." Do my soulful sax jazz and be a filler. When I hear a song and I’m thinking of who I would like to have on it, I automatically hear the person I want.

For example, on the record I told Paul Jackson Jr., when he asked me, "Why did you use Earl on that song or Norman on that song or me on this song?" I said, "Because I didn’t hear your voice on that song."

He thought that was interesting and said, "Well, I don’t hear it that way." I replied, "Paul, to me each person’s instrument is a certain voice just like a singer. I hear your guitar playing as a voice. I don’t hear it just as a guitar. I don’t hear you morphing into a different voice. I hear your style as a voice and that’s what I hired. That’s how I put my songs together.

JazzReview: It sounds like you’re not just skilled as a producer, but as a diplomat as well.

Everette Harp: I learned from George Duke that being a diplomat is every bit as important as being a producer, especially if you want to be a good one with a good relationship with the players. It wasn’t my intent to appease a situation by being diplomatic. It wasn’t a situation. Paul was inquisitive and liked another song and wanted to play on that one. I told him my problem here is I didn’t hear your voice on this song. This screams Earl Klugh to me. This song screams Norman Brown to me. This song screams Dwight Sills and these three songs scream Paul Jackson Jr. It’s just impossible for me to deny those voices that I hear in my head. That’s what I go for.

JazzReview: Let’s talk about Mr. George Duke. Reading from the publicity notes for All for You , it says, "No Harp recording would be complete without a key creative contribution from George Duke, the legendary jazz/funk keyboardist and Harp mentor." Is "mentor" the right word?

Everette Harp: Well, I think so because he’s the one that brought me in on the recording side. He signed me and got me my first record deal. He produced my first record and has served as a sounding board during my entire recording career. I think George played more on this record than any of my other records. This is the first time we’ve co-written since my first record.

JazzReview: How have you changed since that first album?

Everette Harp: Quite a bit. In today’s technological era it’s easy for anyone to own a studio. For a minimal cost of $5000 or $6000 you can record your own records. In today’s time, anyone can assume they are a recording engineer. When I first started that was not the case. In 1991, you had to have a big recording studio. Even then I took an interest in the recording process instead of just being a player. I built my studio at my place and started learning how to engineer. I always was involved. I asked a lot of questions. I twisted knobs. I was in there running computers. I was the tech geek you might say. I’ve always acquired gear and wanted to know how to them so I wouldn’t need anyone else.

What I’m getting at is my last three records I’ve pretty engineered about 85 percent of it recording-wise and I’m always in the mixing and mastering. It makes me much more independent as I’m able to go into the studio and work on my own.

Also, I think my writing has grown. I learned a lot from George Duke. I used to write a bunch of epic songs that were about nine or ten minutes long with different sections like symphonies. He taught me how to hone it down and carve out the hook and try to write hit songs. He taught me how to narrow my writing down as well as my playing. I continue to practice two to three hours a day when I’m not traveling and try to grow as a player. I have yet to achieve the playing status I’d like to for my own personal growth.

JazzReview: So you’re not satisfied with your performance and proficiency as an artist yet?

Everette Harp: Oh, absolutely not. I’m just never happy. When I do sessions for other people I’m constantly asking, "Can I do it again? Can I do it again?" They’ll say, "What are you talking about? This is great Get out of here." That’s just me. I hear what I’d like to be and I’m not there yet. It’s a constant work in progress.

JazzReview: I recall watching an interview with Spike Lee and he was talking about his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It and he said how painful it was for him to see it now and see the flaws. Is that self-critical about your own work?

Everette Harp: Only in the early stages. Years later I can listen and appreciate it for what it was and when it was. There were some great moments on all the records and I’m not talking about my playing as much as I’m talking about the contributions I was able to get from everyone involved in those records.

There were some great records and some great songs and now when I listen to those records it doesn’t pain me so much. Sometimes it pains me listening to myself, but on the whole I think I’m able to listen to them and be a little more sentimental about what was going on then, who I was with, what went down, what the songs mean and the process-enjoying what the process was even more so.

JazzReview: Do you set aside time to write songs as well as practice?

Everette Harp: I find it difficult to write while I’m traveling and touring. It’s easier to be a songwriter when I’m at home. As soon as I hit the road I become a player and that’s pretty much all I do. Unfortunately, when its time to do another record. I have to blow off the dust on the songwriting as I try to rekindle that spark again. I think because there was such a lengthy hiatus of two-and-a-half years before I started All for You , it scared me a bit. I would sit in front of my computer with my keyboard and my synthesizer and nothing was there. I’d sit there and wind would be blowing through the tunnel. That scares you a bit, but you bring in someone to give you a little push and it comes right back.

JazzReview: Does your family know to leave you alone when you’re practicing, songwriting or recording?

Everette Harp: Yeah, I made that painfully clear (laughs). They know that all too well. My wife and I have been married 17 years so it’s the norm for her and my daughter.

JazzReview: Do you read your reviews of your records and concerts?

Everette Harp: I’ve learned early on there’s a lot you learn about getting yourself wrapped up in the others opinion of what you do. My feeling is if you relish the good reviews you have to give credence to the bad ones. I absolutely try to remain neutral. I rarely read reviews of my records. I can’t give them weight.

Jazz Review: I have always been a fan of George Duke and fusion jazz, but neither gets much love from the jazz establishment. There are critics who would say that Duke isn’t a serious jazz musician because of songs like "Dukey Stick." How would you respond to that kind of criticism?

Everette Harp: George and I can’t do anything about how people are going to feel. As far as what category we belong in or as to whether we’re bastardizing any kind of music, my position is the genre was there long before it became "smooth jazz." I prefer the term of "contemporary jazz." That’s a little bit edgier, you can be as funky as you want to be and it’s quite a bit more diverse. It tends to serve the uniqueness of the artist more than serving a song profile, format or styling.

As far as George is concerned there are a lot of people who came along like George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Return to Forever. There were a lot of prolific artists that were making fusion records.

That’s like Wynton Marsalis getting on Miles Davis for recording Bitches Brew or for doing that Michael Jackson song, "Human Nature." If this is what these people like to do as far as music goes, it’s their prerogative to do it. If I choose not to buy a Kenny G record, that’s my prerogative. But if 13 million likes what Kenny G. does that’s their prerogative. The unfortunate thing for the mainstream jazzers is that they tend to suffer because there is more popularity for the contemporary, funky, smooth jazz artist.

I listen to the mainstream, straight-ahead music. That’s all I listen to. I don’t listen to other jazz-based R & B and vocal music. What the mainstream jazzer needs to understand is that market is a very small percentage anyway. That mainstream audience isn’t going to be lost to contemporary jazz. It’s not like Joshua Redman or Michael Brecker-who I know-can say, "They’re stealing our audience," because that’s not true. That audience for them never existed. There’s a mainstream audience and there’s the rest of the world.

The mainstream audience is a very small percentage anyway. They can’t really playa hate a George Duke for taking the music to another audience and grabbing some of them from R & B, adult contemporary or wherever he’s getting them from because the mainstreamers would have never had that audience anyway.

JazzReview: I think this insistence that some critics have to demonize anything that doesn’t fit their definition of jazz as commercial or selling out makes people feel like they should apologize for liking a George Duke or Everette Harp.

Everette Harp: It would bother anyone to hear they were the reason this happened or that happened. For me the George Duke&&&s and Al Di Meola&&&s and Jean-Luc Ponty&&&s; they created a great movement that was still extremely musical.

The music just took off. You can rehash "Bye, Bye Blackbird" or "Stella By Starlight" or those old mainstream jazz songs. You can rehash them until the cows come home. But at the day, it&&&s innovation that’s going to inspire us all. That’s what these guys did. They took the music and went in an entirely different direction.

With the eventual evolution of smooth jazz that type of invention is not going to be there for a long time to come. There has to be a major change. The change has to be back to where the artists are creating the music and not radio creating the artist.

JazzReview: I have to ask you this. I turn on my local smooth jazz station and here’s what’s coming up: Richard Elliot, Peter White. Mindi Abair. Michael McDonald. .Does smooth jazz discriminate against black artists?

Everette Harp: I know a lot of black artists feel left out. It wouldn’t be all that different from Pat Boone recording "Tutti-Fruitti." In the R& B, hip-hop genre you have a Color Me Badd, Justin Timberlake or an Eminem. They are talented people and you can’t deny that. But I think what happens with most black artists is because we are not the majority we start to feel when someone who is not part of urban makeup moves in and starts making the music that is intrinsic to us then we will eventually lose our place because they will bring in a much larger audience of the majority makeup.

By "they" I mean any non-urban, non-black audience. Eminem brings the white fan base into rap and he sells a ton of records. That’s been the case since Kenny G. sold a bunch of records and there seemed to be a pattern among record companies that "We need a Kenny G." Everybody needed a Kenny G. It’s the formula that all the record companies follow whether it’s white or black. This formula means there are less black artists. I’m not going to say that it’s good or bad. It is what it is.

I do feel there needs to be a place where the urban jazz artist can be himself and play the music that is intrinsic to him. I also fault urban radio that they haven’t picked up the slack and included contemporary jazz in their programming.

JazzReview: Yeah. Urban radio does a lousy job of exposing kids to jazz.

Everette Harp: We used to have that forum. We used to have the "quiet storm," but they did away with it. When you think about it, most big urban stations did away with R & B music. Anything that seems to be more musical seems to be going away.

We try through technology to reach the audience by different means. The Internet and satellite radio like XM or Sirius. You try different ways. You’re not going to convince the big radio conglomerates like Clear Channel or Infinity that own a huge amount of stations. These companies want to cater to the younger audience because that’s where they think the money is. There’s a huge amount of 30 and older adults who buy a lot of records - more than younger audiences.

With the rise of performers as opposed to artists, the record companies have become event-driven. They look for events and performers because they can sell and market them as a product as opposed to real music and real talent. Every now and then in the proliferation of that stuff they put out they find a diamond and hopefully that diamond will stick around. But you’ll find there is fewer and fewer that we will be talking about in 20 years from now. They very rarely have artists with longevity. Most of these artists last three or four years. I really thought Brandy would be one of those artists with a long career like Whitney (Houston), Mariah (Carey) or Chaka (Khan).

Where is this generation’s Aretha Franklin or Luther Vandross? They don’t have artists that will be around for ten years. That’s the problem. There are just so many artists and the record companies don’t put enough stock in growing talent. They will discard them in a minute as soon as they stop selling.

JazzReview: Well, Mr. Harp I don’t think that is anything you have to worry about. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m glad that Everette Harp is back on the scene with All for You.

Everette Harp: Thanks. The new album was a joy to make. It took a while to get the juices flowing, but I really enjoyed it. I hope your readers will too.

For additional information on Everette Harp, also visit www.A440musicgroup.com

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Everette Harp
  • Interview Date: 11/1/2004
  • Subtitle: Straight Talk and it's
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