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Oct 082012
 

Mark Harvey and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra: It’s hard to remember what the Boston jazz community was like before Harvey came along. In fact, the term “jazz community” would have seemed far-fetched at best if anyone had used it.

By Steve Elman.

I. Thou shalt not bullshit.

Trumpeter/composer Mark Harvey — he may be the only ordained minister in the world who has converted his life from full-time religion to (just about) full-time jazz. Photo: Kate Matson

Mark Harvey is a friend of mine. We’ve been friends since around 1973, when I was a jazz announcer on WBUR and he was the helmsman of the Jazz / Arts Ministry, which he founded at Old West Church in 1969. Even though I’ve witnessed and applauded much of his journey in the area, and walked alongside him on some of it—from trumpeter-minister, to leader of the Jazz Coalition, to founder of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, to teacher at MIT—I know a great man when I see one, and I see no reason to hide my admiration.

Mark Harvey came to live in Massachusetts in 1968, and he set the groundwork for Aardvark in 1973. For 44 years, he’s been contributing immensely to our musical lives, and 2012–2013 marks Aardvark’s 40th season as a performing ensemble.

From where I sit, Mark Harvey’s integrity as a person and his dedication to jazz are as strong today as they were on the day I met him, and Aardvark is one of the great things about living in New England.

II. Thou shalt pay thy dues.

The religious ministry is not the customary entree to a jazz career. Some have found that the two paths diverge irreconcilably (for example, bassist Gate Frega, who had a brief run with accordionist Joe Mooney before giving up jazz to become a priest).

Nonetheless, there are a handful of people who try to navigate between a jazz life and a religious vocation. Pianist Louise Rose of Victoria, British Columbia and bassist-guitarist Stan Fortuna, based in New York, make their music an integral part of their religious activities. But as a rule, the religious who dabble in jazz are ministers first and players incidentally. Chicago guitarist John Moulder (a priest) and New York saxophonist Greg Wall (a rabbi) are two who have managed some notice for their extra-pulpit music, but the ordained others who emerge from online searches are well below the jazz-crit radar: clarinetist Francis Coco of New Orleans; pianist Ron Myers of Muskogee, Oklahoma; pianist Ran Whitley of Buies Creek, North Carolina; and pianist William Carter of Clarke Summit, Pennsylvania. There are undoubtedly more out there, but you’ll have to look long and hard to find any of them doing a club date near you.

For better or worse, whether judged as a jazz-playing preacher or a preaching jazz musician, each of the above runs the risk of being considered a dilettante on one side of the divide or the other. As an ordained, Methodist minister and aspiring jazz trumpeter, Mark Harvey tried to go both ways in the early 1970s, and the reaction to his musical work was predictable. His devotion to out playing (demonstrated by the free-improv LP he made with his quartet and a later release of open-form duets) led even good friends and well-meaning associates to question whether he ought to give up his day job.

Mark Harvey, circa 1975

But he persevered, studying Ellington and Mingus, learning personally from Jaki Byard and George Russell at the New England Conservatory, leading a vigorous, conventional big band with fellow-trumpeter Claudio Roditi, and establishing Aardvark as a dual-purpose vehicle for his own compositions and a performance laboratory falling somewhere between the territory bands and Sun Ra.

Today, he may be the only ordained minister in the world who has converted his life from full-time religion to (just about) full-time jazz.

There is another jazz-religion paradigm to which Harvey has made a notable contribution—that of the ordained jazz cheerleader. New York City Lutheran minister John Garcia Velez Gensel (1918–1980) made the jazz community part of his vocation, virtually invented the idea of the “jazz vespers” service, and forged a personal relationship with many players who had never considered going to a minister to discuss problems with domestic partners, addictive substances, and personal demons. Working from the other direction, the much-loved “jazz priest,” Rev. Norman O’Connor (1921–2003) was a minor celebrity in New England in the 1960s, legitimizing the music for many listeners with his WGBH radio show and his regular on-stage appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival. And Rev. Alvin L. Kershaw (1919–2001) did it all, headlining an LP of classic traditional recordings for the uninitiated (Introduction to Jazz, 1953), winning $32,000 on the TV quiz program The $64,000 Question in 1956 answering questions about jazz, and beginning a music ministry as rector of Emmanuel Church in the mid-1960s that made it a magnet for musicians of many stripes, a commitment that spawned weekly Bach cantata performances under the direction of Craig Smith in 1970 and progressive jazz programs in the 1970s and 1980s under the direction of . . . Mark Harvey.

It’s hard to remember what the Boston jazz community was like before Harvey came along. In fact, the term “jazz community” would have seemed far-fetched at best if anyone had used it. Racial tension was as much a part of Boston as left-hand turns from right-hand lanes, and jazz was not immune. There was considerable suspicion between older, black jazz fans (for example, the regular denizens of Estelle’s and Wally’s Paradise, in the ungentrified South End) and older, white ones (who tended to favor Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in Peabody).

Mark Harvey with the Aardvark Orchestra, 1988. Photo: V. J. Zabek

When Harvey enrolled at Boston University, he was already carrying that peculiar evangelical fervor that only jazz people really understand. He tried to found a college jazz society (In 1968! In the year the Beatles released the White Album and the number-one singles included Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”!), but found interest lacking. In the fall of 1969, following a time-worn track that might lead to a pulpit of his own someday, he became a religious intern at the Old West Church.

And then his life took an odd turn. What he accomplished in the next 15 years is a testament to what you can do when you don’t know what’s supposed to be possible.

When he praised the work John Gensel was doing in New York, he was tapped by the United Methodists to organize a jazz ministry at Old West in the same spirit. He was fortunate that the church already had a commitment to progressive thinking and social activism . . . ah, those were the days.

Harvey began jazz vespers programs that combined worship and music and then developed a “Jazz Celebrations” concept that included religious and non-religious events, including in its first season a recital by a maverick pianist named Ran Blake, who was still barely appreciated by even the most devoted music listeners. By the end of 1970, he was fired up to do more and conceived the notion of a citywide association devoted to jazz.

The Jazz Coalition emerged from a series of meetings in January 1971 at Old West. Harvey recalls that Ran Blake, along with other musicians including Tom Everett, Phil Wilson, Larry Lerner, Robert Ruff, and Gerry Adams were involved in the process right away. The talks brought in community activists Jacqueline “Coffey” Humbert, Zola Levine, Linda Rosenberg, and Jean Slotnick, and some of the area’s jazz radio announcers, including Jack Bernstein of WTBS, Oscar Jackson of WBUR, and Charlie Perkins of WHRB. Whether explicit or not, one of the group’s goals was to cool the racial heat in the city by bringing together people of different backgrounds to find a common home in art.

By the middle of the year, there was an organization, and an idea—a spinoff of John Gensel’s “All Night Soul” concerts in New York. Old West sponsored an all-night marathon of live jazz, gospel, and blues, capped by a pancake breakfast for the hardy few who made it through until dawn. James Montgomery’s band headlined, and the other performers included Ran Blake, bassist Jamyll Jones, the Ronald Ingraham Concert Choir, Claudio Roditi, and Harvey’s own free-jazz quartet. More than 600 people came out. In a word, July 31, 1971 was the opening night of a new era, and Mark Harvey was one of the prime movers in that opening night.

Mark Harvey and the Aardvark Orchestra swinging at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1996. Photo: V.J. Zabek

The road ahead was anything but smooth. The Coalition was stunned when Boston University administrators drastically cut back programming at WBUR in 1972, eliminating the air shift of Oscar Jackson, one of the organization’s key members. An arson fire in the student lounge at the School of Public Communication had led authorities to question the value of the station’s news, community, and jazz programming, and to suspect that some of the staff were radicals capable of doing serious damage. In a move that later staffers usually called “The Purge,” WBUR was limited to eight hours of air time a day and stripped of all staff except announcer Peter Carroll, who hosted classical music from sign-on to sign-off.

Harvey found himself with more headaches than inspiration as the Coalition tried to decide how to respond. In addition, Coalition concerts after the first all-nighter were poorly attended. What exactly was this organization supposed to be?

A lot of soul-searching followed, plus the addition of new sparkplugs Ron Gill, Arni Cheatham, and David Wood. In April and October of 1972, the Coalition sponsored two more marathon concerts, and in December, it presented one of the most important jazz events in Boston for many years—a tribute to and benefit for trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who was critically ill with kidney disease. Dorham came to Boston for the show and performed triumphantly with a trumpet choir created especially for that event. Two days later he died.

The Coalition inaugurated one of Harvey’s dreams, the first Boston Jazz Week, in May 1973 with over 100 events, including another Jazz All Night at Old West, a pivotal comeback appearance by singer Betty Carter, who was at the very beginning of a long-deserved ascent into the jazz pantheon, and the American theatrical premiere of John Jeremy’s film, Jazz Is Our Religion.

There was another bump when Harvey lost his position at Old West in 1973 in a hierarchical shakeup, but he pulled the Jazz/Arts Ministry, the Coalition, and Jazz All Night along with him when he landed a new job at the Church of the Covenant. In 1974, he was recruited by Al Kershaw to move down Newbury Street to Emmanuel Church, and all of the jazz community activities continued there through the 1980s.

Harvey’s musical career began to catch up with his church work in the mid-’70s. In 1974 and 1975, Harvey and Claudio Roditi co-led an outstanding big band, working (approximately) in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis vein, and he subsequently had a run of about five years performing and occasionally touring with Baird Hersey’s Year of the Ear, a marvelous and uncategorizable, little big band that drew from the avant-garde and fusion almost equally.

The Coalition and the All-Night Concerts gradually were eclipsed by events they set in motion. At the time Mark Harvey arrived in Boston (alas, much like today), local club venues were limited in number (The Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall, Wally’s, Lennie’s, and somewhat later Sandy’s Jazz Revival), and programming was conservative. The Jazz Celebrations series, the Jazz All Night shows, and Jazz Week concerts became a floating alternative festival of more adventurous music, which influenced the thinking of small-scale entrepreneurs. Some club owners began to take chances on music that had never before been considered “commercial,” and new venues were established that contributed significantly to the area and gave performance opportunities to hundreds of young musicians who might otherwise have gone unheard—notably, Michael’s (on Gainsborough Street near the New England Conservatory), the 1369 Club and Ryles in Inman Square in Cambridge, and a bit later, the Willow in Somerville. (All except Ryles have ceased operation, but the great memories remain.)

Aardvark Orchestra at MIT, 2002. Photo: V.J. Zabek

Each of us who lived through the jazz renaissance in Boston (roughly 1972–1985) cherishes musical memories for which Mark Harvey is at least partly responsible. For me, some of the best ones were: Sheila Jordan’s thrilling date in the Jazz Celebrations series, one of the first steps in the resuscitation of her performing career; the tenor saxophone battle between Sam Rivers and Ricky Ford in one of the Jazz All Night concerts—an old lion and a new one reviving a great tradition; a solo set in the Jazz Celebrations series by the late and almost-forgotten master of the vibraphone Walt Dickerson; a club date by the neglected, first-generation bebopper Howard McGhee at Debbie’s, a seedy, little venue in the Government Center area that relied heavily on Harvey’s advice for programming; and, greatest of all, the 1983 Emmanuel Church premiere of George Russell’s masterpiece, “The African Game,” for which Harvey snared a composition grant, produced the show, and played in the ensemble.

The 1990s led to some retrenchment and less visibility. When Kershaw retired from Emmanuel Church in 1989, the Jazz/Arts Ministry was given a somewhat lower profile, and by 1992, Harvey’s relationship with the church was over. He found a new home for the Ministry at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church and scuffled to put together a combination of teaching, performing, and religious work that would keep body and soul alive. When the smoke finally cleared, the twenty-first century saw him well-established as a Lecturer at MIT and regularly leading and writing for Aardvark. He officially retired from the ministry in 2005.

The wheel came full circle in 2007 as Harvey helped in the formation of JazzBoston, where he continues as a member of the Board of Directors, and in the establishment of a new Jazz Week in April/May.

Harvey’s relentless good will and his dogged dedication to healing are not the only reasons that Boston has grown a real jazz community, but they were part of the process. Although the scene might have changed without him, he did all he could to make that change happen.

III. Thou shalt do thine own work, and covet not.

From his earliest recordings and performances, Mark Harvey has been his own artist.

Harvey readily acknowledges that he is not a Dizzy Gillespie-style virtuoso and never aspired to be. When he plays trumpet today (which is rarer and rarer, unfortunately), he shows a distinctive combination of influences—notably Kenny Dorham and Lester Bowie, with a smattering of classical lyricism. His sound is tart and compact, and he is invariably interested in substance rather than flash.

Although he has played in many conventional settings, his passion is music that breaks through the dams of tradition and sails out onto the open ocean. He has spoken and written a good deal about his early work and in particular, his first experiences playing without pre-conceived structures. One of these early improvs was recorded and it is actually available for you to hear and think about, if you can find it (It was released on Harvey’s Duets LP in 1981 and the download site ReRelease.net has promised to make it available [see discography below]).

Later titled “Intuition Number One,” it’s a free duet with tenor saxophonist Peter Bloom, recorded at the Old West Church in 1969. Considering the musical contest of that year, you could be forgiven for expecting an onslaught of honks and bleats, but this is a meditative 11 minutes of long tones, chance consonance, considered dissonance, careful cooperation, and a very assured use of space, all of which lead to an unexpected and very satisfying resolution. There are a few freak effects, but they come across as atmospheric rather than provocative. This is remarkably mature, especially considering that it is contemporaneous with the first recordings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, when that band was living and working in France, long before it had achieved significant attention in the US. Even at this early stage in their performing life, Harvey and Bloom have already achieved great self-discipline and seem to know what steps are needed next.

Commenting on that performance, Harvey says, “I realized with amazement that music could be created out of thin air . . . I came to appreciate such music-making as a kind of holy act, perhaps part of the larger, ever-evolving creation that surrounds and sustains us.” That credo has informed almost all of his work since.

Since 1993, his musical activities have centered on Aardvark, more formally called the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra to distinguish it from several rock units that have also named themselves after anteaters. Paradoxically, the band is both a free-wheeling collective and the display case for Harvey’s formal compositions, but this description hardly does it justice. The music could not exist without Harvey, and yet it is wholly the creation of the musicians on the stand. When you see Aardvark perform or hear them on record, you are almost always likely to be surprised, but you are also almost always likely to find something you recognize. It is this very unusual mix of the expected and unexpected that tantalizes the ear and keeps you coming back for “just one more listen.”

In addition, one performance or one recording cannot give a full picture of what the band can do, and what Harvey wants them to do. So I’ve deliberately avoided writing about them for a number of months so that I could hear three live dates in three different venues and get familiar with their new recording, Evocations.

IV. Honor thy forefathers and foremothers.

It’s rare for Harvey to do a concert without acknowledging one or more of the giants who have influenced him. Charles Ives and Duke Ellington are the first two names he always mentions, but he also cites predecessors by dedicating pieces to them: “Don Cherry’s Song of Beauty,” “Gil” (for Gil Evans), “The Seeker” (for John Coltrane), and “Blues for Mary Lou” (dedicated to Mary Lou Williams).

One of the most important stories he tells, on the stand and off, recalls his experience in 1986 commissioning Jaki Byard to write a concerto for jazz orchestra for Aardvark to premiere. Eager to rehearse the band, he asked Byard for music several months before the performance date, then a month before, then three weeks before, then two weeks before. Finally Byard presented him with a simple lead sheet, barely sketching a collection of melodic lines. When Byard took the stage at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, he improvised the composition with Aardvark, signaling to players and sections, calling for free improvisations and elements of the written music, gradually assembling a structure into which his own piano improvisations were integrated. Harvey considers the performance one of the most important experiences of his life, and one that influenced his own work with the band.

He also notes the experience he had learning from and working with George Russell, who developed a series of hand gestures to cue certain kinds of effects in performance, and some shorthand symbols to identify sections of his scores he wanted the players to introduce or repeat. Combining the two approaches, Harvey developed his own approach to leading Aardvark, which he calls “flexology.”

Mark Harvey with blue skies as a backdrop. Photo: Kate Matson

VII. Thou shalt lead by thy example.

Flexology is an approach to composing/conducting that offers the leader infinite gradations of choice on a continuum between complete freedom and complete structure. Harvey says that he decides on an approach that is appropriate to the particular goals of a piece and then uses written and non-written means to achieve them. He cites occasions when he has given absolutely no framework to Aardvark and allowed the band to set every parameter of a performance. He has prepared compositions that are primarily conceptual, some that involve a minimal amount of written material a la Byard’s concerto, some that are half-written and half-improvised, and some that provide improvisation through traditional solo roles.

For a flexological approach to bear fruit, the players have to be familiar with its procedures and willing to execute them well. In fact, these methods are not so different from conventional performance practices once they are learned well, and Aardvark knows what to do—so much so that the band often reshapes a piece in performance in ways Harvey never expects.

Flexology makes the conductor of the ensemble as much a player as the musicians. Harvey assesses what’s going on second to second, and makes adjustments—sometimes radical ones. He calls for accents or interjections from sections or soloists. He shows visually the kinds of sounds he wants the players to make, with hand gestures that are easy to read and comprehend. He counts off changes in tempo and cues the band for those shifts—sometimes creating polyrhythms on the spot. He shows off cards with letters on them, indicating which parts of the score he wants them to play next. He picks up on ideas players throw out and encourages the ensemble to imitate or embellish them.

Harvey cites the history of jazz when he talks about flexology, as he did at length in an MIT forum on October 1. He points to the Midwestern “territory bands” of the thirties and forties, who frequently improvised section riffs and whole performances using nothing more than blues changes or tunes that everyone knew, like “Tiger Rag.” Inevitably these territory groups fostered a strongly rhythmic music, and their influence was enormous. The Count Basie band grew out of Bennie Moten’s territory ensemble, and its patented style is really a codification of ideas that once were created spontaneously. Early R&B owes a lot to the territory groups—the jump bands of the late forties and early fifties electrified the instruments and firmed up the beat, but the ideas of spontaneous give-and-take within the band and repeated backing figures made up on the spot were imported from the territory arsenal.

Harvey also cites the more recent precedent of the Sun Ra Arkestra (which more than one critic has referred to as “the last territory band”). Ra’s loose, anything-goes approach made the stage a whirlwind of avant-garde vaudeville, with unstructured soloing, weird, electronic effects from cheesy keyboards, mass screaming, and sloppy riffing, fronted by dancers, singers, acrobats, and even fire-eaters from time to time. And yet, somehow, it expressed a unified vision of Ra’s own “space is the place” philosophy, which was possibly a schizophrenic’s fantasy, possibly a con man’s spiel, possibly a postmodernist’s manifesto, and probably some of all of them.

Bill Lowe, trombone. Photo by Matthew Griffing

These precedents, and Aardvark’s own realizations of similar tactics, require a reshuffling of esthetic priorities. Because there is no single-minded artistic vision, the traditional Western notion of one-to-one communication between the creative soul and the passive receiver cannot apply. Harvey says that his own assessment of the success of a performance depends not on his original conception of a piece but on the amount of group creativity it spawns.

There is a downside to this if one is obsessive about control, and to a certain extent, Harvey cannot perceive the full effect of any of his pieces. At the MIT forum, he was frank about this when he commented that his experience as conductor is very different from what he perceives when he listens to the recordings of Aardvark’s concerts.

I’ve heard Aardvark at Kresge Auditorium, at Scullers, and at the Regattabar. I’ve heard them sitting at a considerable distance and heard them sitting very close to where Harvey was standing. The band sounds different in different spaces, and it even sounds different at different seats in a venue. I think I prefer sitting up close because it allows me to hear details and to perceive interactions more accurately, but that sacrifices the blend of sounds that I can hear way back in a big hall. Frankly, I don’t know if this is a positive or a negative for flexology or for Aardvark. I do know that multiple exposures are required if one wants to have full appreciation for what this band can do.

What I draw from this realization is that flexology asks its audience to tune its ears to a different esthetic frequency. It’s customary in all art for the receiver to come towards the artist to some extent—we each bring our own impressions and ideas to engagement with an artwork, and we forgive things that we may not find familiar in order to grasp what the artist is trying to say. But in a flexological world, the audience has to understand that the edges are intentionally rough, that the canvas is going to be raw in places, that players may occasionally be out of synch, that there may be unintentional collisions and structural imbalances. That one may never achieve a “complete” hearing of a piece because so much is going on. And that one may not be left with a neat and tidy “that’s what it’s about” feeling when a piece is over.

Nonetheless, what’s consistently impressive about Aardvark is how well its systems work and how beautifully it expresses Harvey’s own artistic vision, which he expresses quite simply: “to put sound into the world in hopes of transforming that world for the better of life.”

V. Thou shalt love thy players as thyself.

It should be obvious by now that the musicians of Aardvark are a special bunch. Longevity is crucial to its success, because no amount of rehearsal can prepare a player for that collective experience on the bandstand in front of an audience. This is probably a good thing, since most of the players in the band are busy musicians with careers of their own. If too many rehearsals were necessary, they might not be able to give the music the commitment it needs.

Length of service is one measure of value. Harvey’s old stablemate Peter Bloom has been a regular with the band almost since the beginning, and his solos on flute and amplified flute are always highlights of a performance. Trombonists Bob Pilkington and Jeff Marsanskis and drummer Harry Wellott have been in their chairs three decades. The two other pillars of the rhythm section—guitarist Richard Nelson and bassist John Funkhouser—each have more than 20 years to their credit. But even the most junior, regular instrumentalist is a long-timer—Dan Zupan has been playing baritone with Aardvark for 15 years. I cannot think of any other existing large ensemble in jazz with that kind of internal loyalty.

I have to be unfair here and limit my mentions of individual players—just as with Ellington’s band, every musician in Aardvark has an individual voice that Harvey seeks to blend into a cohesive unity, and each of them offers what is special about himself or herself. So I will point to only four people, knowing that they have to represent the others. (But see below for a complete list of the regulars.)

Arni Cheatham, saxophone. Photo: Chris Cheon

In the great traditions of big bands past, Harvey carries two singers, who provide some variety by presenting standards and jazz classics. Both of them please audiences mightily. Jerry Edwards has 30 years in, and it’s obvious why Harvey likes him so much—he has that big Al Hibbler sound without Hibbler’s sometimes-annoying wobble. So he can sing “I Like the Sunrise” or “Solitude” with exactly the right feeling and then turn around to shout the blues in a Joe Williams vein. Grace Hughes is the band’s true newcomer, with only nine years as the distaff singer. I’ve heard her on two occasions at Scullers, and I think she’s growing into the role well. In February, I thought she oversold “I’m Beginning to See the Light” a bit, but in the October 3 show, she was very effective in Ellington’s “Tell Me the Truth” and in Harvey’s reconstruction of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

First-time listeners to Aardvark will undoubtedly walk away with strong impressions of Bill Lowe. He is to Aardvark what Johnny Hodges was to Ellington—a star soloist, a distinctive voice on his instruments (bass trombone and tuba), and an irrepressible personality without whom the band would be very different. His solos are beautifully crafted, and his craft is truly beautiful to hear; with a strong command of multiphonics and mutes, he speaks a variety of languages on the stand, and he is eloquent in each one.

If Lowe is Hodges, Arni Cheatham is Aardvark’s Harry Carney—the rock on whom so much depends. Arni has more than three decades as alto soloist and leader of the reeds. He is as much a veteran of the Boston scene as is Harvey, and the two are fast friends. He came up in the old-school way (as an apprentice to other musicians and a scuffler for his own gigs), led a pioneering fusion band (Thing), spearheaded a groundbreaking program to introduce Boston-area students to music and soothe racial tensions during the worst days of the busing era (JazzEd), and consistently provided the Jazz Coalition with energy and ideas. As a player, he does everything well—from caressing a ballad to playing on the changes to flying free. As a man, he is much more than all the above credentials might imply—a generous spirit and a soulful presence. When Arni’s smiling, you know things are going well.

VI. Remember the bandstand, to keep it cool.

Fronting a big band is a hugely complicated task. The business details are legion—who can make which gigs, when rehearsals can be scheduled, where you can rehearse, how the money gets distributed, where the subs come from, how to get the musical parts printed and distributed—all of these things are like the scutwork of fronting a small group, multiplied by 20 or so.

Not to mention the getting of gigs, which is a talent that requires unfailing equanimity, steely resolve, and unshakable faith in the worth of your group and your music.

Mark Harvey does all these things well, and it seems that he does them without breaking a sweat. He has help, of course—his manager, Rebecca DeLamotte, is one of the most dependable professionals in the business, and his wife, artist Kate Matson, provides excellent photos and distinctive graphics for the group’s releases, and she is a constant presence behind the scenes.

There are elements to this leadership that are harder to quantify. Harvey has had to find players who will be willing to put aside a certain amount of their ego in order to make the kind of music he wants. He has been lucky to find people who want to make that kind of music as much as he does. But he has to be constantly sensitive to changes in the band’s atmosphere and personal issues affecting the players, because this is music that cannot be played well if there is distraction or discord. In this matter, Aardvark is the latest in a series of Mark Harvey’s congregations.

When he embraced the idea of a Jazz/Arts Ministry, he included within it the mandate to provide pastoral counseling with a jazz perspective. In some ways, only a jazz musician can really understand what it’s like to put yourself on the line, night after night, year after year, and often to do so without significant appreciation or recompense. For over 40 years, Harvey has been helping musicians privately with their personal issues, and within Aardvark, he’s counseled players on their relationships and marriages, their health, their personal problems, and their passages.

He has even had to weather a death in the family—when long-time percussionist Craig Ellis died in 2006, he organized a memorial service at which about half the band gathered to perform musical tributes.

Aardvark Orchestra and Mark Harvey at Bates College, 2004. Photo: Alexander Verhave

VIII. Thou shalt justify the righteous and chastise the deceitful.

Harvey’s compositions cluster around three thematic centers—art and creativity, the church, and the headlines. In addition to the pieces for his jazz predecessors mentioned above, he has written a suite that attempts to translate visual images into music (Paintings, six pieces after works of Stuart Davis), a jazz mass, two sets of pieces based on the Psalms, and a few purely abstract compositions.

The editorial pieces are more pointed and less serious than those in the first two categories; they’re usually wry and occasionally hammy. In presenting them, Harvey carries on that noble tradition of the New England clergyman who is also a social activist. When he comments on the follies of the great and the travails of the small, he’s securely walking a path laid out for him by Roger Williams, Theadore Parker, Francis Parkman, William Sloane Coffin, and James Reeb, just to mention a few.

Past titles provide almost all that need be said about the pieces themselves: “Big Oil Tango,” “Theocracy in America,” “Tiananmen Elegy.” “Scamology” closed both of this year’s shows at Scullers, and it is probably the most good-natured of these pieces, with a solid vamp figure over which the band comments freely.

The new CD, Evocations, has three of these exercises. There is depth and worth to “Rascals & Scoundrels,” inspired by the not-so-lovable rogues of Boston history—among them Charles Ponzi, James Michael Curley, and the contractors of the Big Dig, complete with a piano elegy at the end played by Harvey for all the victims of the lies and fraud, and specifically for Milena del Valle, who was crushed to death by that infamous slab of poorly-secured tunnel.

The other two pieces don’t quite have the same bite. “Dig the Dig” is one of Harvey’s most vaudevillian works, another comment on the Big Dig that includes two spoken interludes—one by Harvey himself reading a list of road closings and the other by the band members improvising conversations of motorists, construction workers, and others affected by the project. “March of the Booboisie” is good old American sarcasm, a mock-celebration of contemporary Babbitry, or as Harvey himself says in the notes, those who are “gullible, easily-led, anti-intellectual, and pious yet unaware of the corruption and hypocrisy in their midst.”

There’s some doubt in my mind about whether these were the wisest choices for CD release. “Dig the Dig” is a lot of fun, but I don’t think I want to hear it over and over. I think I would have rather had a more abstract piece with just as much humor and a bit more bite—like “Cantata Tubulidentata,” which they played at Scullers on October 3, where the Latin name for the Order to which the aardvark belongs becomes the rhythmic foundation for four individual movements: the first using a band chant of “tubulidentata” and based “I Got Rhythm” changes; a slow one with a sarcastic, spoken recitative; an augmented and reharmonized blues; and a finale with a bullfight/”Caravan” feeling.

On the other hand, this may be a function of seeing the piece performed. When the band played “Dig the Dig,” they brought shovels and wore hardhats, and those visual elements are lost in translation to CD. If there is any single matter that I would like Aardvark to address to preserve its legacy more effectively, it is the quality of its recordings. Nearly all of its CDs are drawn from live performance, which makes perfect sense, considering how the band works and how much Harvey needs that live edge to bring his pieces to life. But I would like to have the benefit of more individual mics for recording purposes and a meticulous mixdown that preserves detail and group identity at the same time. It wouldn’t be easy, but in my opinion, it would be worth it.

In the meantime, to savor the full Aardvark experience, see them in concert and then buy one of their CDs as a memento.

Aardvark Orchestra, 2007 version. Photo: Kate Matson

IX. Thou shalt kill, or at the very least, thou shalt strive to kill.

Like Ellington, Harvey is acutely aware of his audience, and the ovations I hear at his performances are not just enthusiasm for the music but enthusiasm for a life of creative work and enthusiasm for his devotion to his band. You can’t fake the emotions that you see on the bandstand or the warmth that comes back in the applause.

Harvey has built an impressive list of supporters and second-liners who turn out enthusiastically and regularly for club dates and concerts. Aardvark is booked often at Scullers and the Regattabar, offers two or more concerts each year in MIT’s larger halls, and gets around to other colleges, museums, festivals, churches, and other venues. The 2012–2013 season offers a nice cross-section of their activities (see below for a complete description of upcoming events).

The club appearances tend to be built along the lines of Ellington’s “dance dates,” with shorter pieces, more immediately appealing originals, and arrangements of familiar standards, sometimes capped by a big piece of one sort or another. The concert gigs are usually opportunities to premiere new pieces and/or assemble material into thematic programs—for example, Christmas concerts are an Aardvark tradition, and in March 2013, Harvey plans to premiere “Boston JazzScape,” 10 musical pictures of personalities and moments in Boston history.

Each of these performance approaches has its place, but they tend to corral what Harvey does into music with one of two public faces—it’s over-simplifying to call the categories crowd-pleasers and serious music, but let those terms stand for now. I find that I’m occasionally wishing for him to create more personal and more intimate pieces outside of these categories, things that lift the public veil and let one see into his heart.

It’s not that his music isn’t personal. As I noted above, some of his pieces directly express his admiration for fellow musicians. He wrote pieces (“Blood on the Sun” and “New Moon Rising”) in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. There are pieces that reflect his faith (for example, his arrangements of Christmas carols and his series of pieces based on the Psalms). I think that he hungers and thirsts for justice and expresses that in his political pieces. But these are all still “public works,” in a way.

There is perhaps nothing more moving in Charles Mingus’s discography than his solo piano improvisation called “Myself When I Am Real,” and nothing in Ellington’s work that so consistently brings me to tears as his simple performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” at the sessions following his long-time partner’s death. Although I’m not suggesting that Harvey banish the band to the wings and play a solo piano set, there is a closeness and profundity in these works that an audience yearns for, even if it cannot directly express that yearning.

Whenever I try to put this in words, I find myself going back to William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, in which he championed what he called “the old universal truths . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” It may seem paradoxical to cite abstractions, but it seems to me that the best way for the artist to express those old universal truths is by sharing something deep and hidden.

That may be why I think “Sumner,” the closing composition on Evocations, is so significant to his growth as an artist. It’s dedicated to one of Harvey’s distant ancestors, the Massachusetts Congressman Charles Sumner, a bitter foe of slavery, a vengeful opponent of the secessionists, a champion of the newly-freed slaves, and the victim of a caning on the floor of the US Senate that nearly killed him. Sumner was not a saint; he was reportedly headstrong and egocentric. But the caning was a deeply significant moment, a symbolic conflict of Northern righteousness and Southern honor, and Harvey is glad that one of his forefathers was on the right side of history.

I think “Sumner” is one of Harvey’s greatest pieces as a composer, and it deserves pride of place on the new CD. Fortunately, it gets an excellent recording, courtesy of Tony DiBartolo. It has powerful and effective melodic material, and the band does an outstanding job integrating all of the unwritten elements. The energy peaks with Harry Wellott’s blistering drum solo, portraying the caning incident, and a furious Civil War battle, reenacted by Arni Cheatham on alto and Bob Pilkington on trombone. And the closing ensemble, a funereal theme with muscular George Russell-ish dissonances, brilliantly puts the capstone on what Harvey said he wanted to build: “a monument in music” to Sumner.

(An in-depth examination of the piece and video of the performance, with commentary by Harvey, is available via YouTube.)

Though he and I have never discussed the matter, it seems to me that something in this piece is more personal than public. I think that Harvey identifies with Sumner’s lifelong defiance of intolerance—although, if confronted with the same challenges, I think Mark Harvey would handle matters a good deal differently.

Beyond the stated subject matter, though, it may be that Harvey himself is beginning to feel the hand of time on his shoulder, and (maybe subconsciously) he may be striving to leave bigger monuments to the principles in which he believes so passionately. I would welcome their construction, the sooner the better.

X. I am thy occasional god Jazz, and I am not a jealous god, for I bless my faithful as no other god can, and to those who honor my ways I grant treasures that endureth.

Amen.


More:

JazzBoston website
Aardvark Jazz Orchestra website

The people of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra:

Reeds: Arni Cheatham, Peter Bloom, Phil Scarff, Chris Rakowski, and Dan Zupan
Trumpets: K. C. Dunbar, Jeanne Snodgrass, and Taylor Ho Bynum
Trombones: Bob Pilkington and Jay Keyser
Bass trombones & tuba: Jeff Marsanskis and Bill Lowe
Rhythm section: Richard Nelson, guitar; John Funkhouser, bass; Harry Wellott, drums
Vocalists: Jerry Edwards and Grace Hughes
Music Director, Conductor, Trumpet, Occasional Piano: Mark Harvey

Upcoming Aardvark concerts:

“Satire & Salutations”: Saturday November 10, 2012, 8 PM, Killian Hall at MIT, 160 Memorial Drive, Cambridge (free)
A post-election concert, featuring Harvey’s political pieces, old and new

Christmas Concert: Saturday December 15, 2012, 8 PM, Emmanuel Church, 15 Newbury Street, Boston ($15 admission)
The ensemble’s 40th annual holiday event (a tradition inaugurated at the Church of the Covenant on December 23, 1973, as a Christmas benefit for the victims of a major fire in Chelsea). Expect Harvey’s distinctive arrangements of carols familiar and unfamiliar, and a surprise or two.

“Jazz Panorama”: Sunday January 20, 2013, 2 PM, Amazing Things Arts Center, 160 Hollis Street, Framingham (sliding scale of admission fees, $20 – $17, $10 for children under 12)
A spotlight for Harvey’s arrangements of music written by others – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane, and more.

“Boston JazzScape”: Friday March 8, 2013, 7:30 PM, Remis Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston ($22 general admission, $18 for MFA members)
First performance of a suite of Harvey pieces composed over the past ten years portraying events and people in Boston history, including the great fire of 1872, Sacco and Vanzetti, Nat Hentoff, Kip Tiernan, and the destruction of the West End in the name of urban renewal.

“Echoes & Resonance”: Saturday April 20, 2013, 8 PM, Kresge Auditorium at MIT, 48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge (free)
Part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of jazz at MIT, including performances of “Beyond” and “Saxophrenia,” major Harvey pieces commissioned by MIT

A Mark Harvey discography:

In so far as I know, no one has yet compiled a scholarly discography of Harvey’s recordings, and not one of the on-line lists of his recordings is complete. So far, the best biography / discography is his listing within jazz.com’s Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians (http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/harvey-mark), because it includes his performances in soundtrack recordings and broadcasts; however, it apparently has not been updated since 2007, and does not show the last three Aardvark CDs. — SE

Here is a list of every commercially-released recording I’m aware of:

As solo artist:

The Mark Harvey Group [aka “In Concert”] with Peter Bloom, Craig Ellis,
Michael Standish (privately issued to subscribers, 1972; now available through ReRelease.net)
Duets, with Tom Plsek, Craig Ellis, Peter Bloom, Andy Louis, and Jon Voigt
(Aardmuse, 1981; currently unavailable, but planned for re-issue through ReRelease.net)

As composer and leader of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra:

Aardvark Steps Out (Nine Winds, 1993)
Paintings for Jazz Orchestra (Leo Lab, 1995)
Psalms and Elegies (Nine Winds, 1997)
An Aardvark Christmas (Nine Winds, 1997)
One track, “Weird Magnetism,” on Autumn Uprising, an anthology of Boston-based
new-music jazz ensembles in the late 1990s, including performances by Raphe Malik’s Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble, Jon Voigt, Charlie Kohlhase, Debris, Masashi Harada, and Hans Poppel (Tautology, 1998)
The Seeker (Leo Lab, 2000)
Bethlehem Counterpoint, with Sheila Jordan (Aardmuse, 2002)
Duke Ellington / Sacred Music (Aardmuse, 2002)
Trumpet Madness (Leo, 2005)
American Agonistes: Music in Time of War (Leo, 2007)
No Walls: A Christmas Concert (Aardmuse, 2007)
Evocations (Leo, 2012)

As composer and conductor of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble:

One track, excerpts of “Flex,” on The Tale of the Sky Swimmer, an anthology
including performances by Herb Pomeroy and Fred Harris (HerbMIT, 2002)

As sideman:

Baird Hersey and the Year of the Ear (Bent, 1975)
Baird Hersey and the Year of the Ear: Lookin’ for that Groove (Arista / Novus, 1978)
Baird Hersey and the Year of the Ear: Have You Heard? (Arista / Novus, 1979)
George Russell: The African Game (Blue Note, 1985)
George Russell: So What (Blue Note, 1986)

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  One Response to “Fuse Jazz Appreciation: Mark Harvey 44, Aardvark Jazz Orchestra 40”

Comments (1)
  1. Just a grace note of appreciation for Mark Harvey and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. Back in 2006 I was editing WBUR Online Arts and needed theme music for my monthly podcast. Mark answered my request and sent me a juicy section of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra playing the tune “March of the Booboisie” — which is on his new CD. It turns out to have been a prescient choice.

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