June 14, 2024

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Detroit-born baritone jazz saxophonist Alex Harding brings smoldering sound։ Video, Photos

The burning heat and hard-driving swing of a jazz organ trio will fill Ann Arbor’s Blue Llama Jazz Club on Friday when baritone saxophonist Alex Harding’s Organ Nation plays an evening of standards and surprises.

Harding is one of the music industry’s most-sought-after baritone sax players. His most recent recording, 2019’s “Dark Blue,” is a duo featuring Harding on baritone sax and bass clarinet in dialogue with Romanian pianist Lucian Ban. It’s just the two of them for 11 smoldering tracks, a moody and deeply gorgeous affair.

Growing up on Detroit’s west side, Harding got his start on drums in fourth grade before switching to tenor saxophone around age 10. He later attended Northwestern High School, learning the craft from legendary music educator Ernie Rodgers in the school’s jazz band. It was Rodgers who switched Harding to baritone sax — to make room for tenor player James Carter, who’s since become one of the world’s most-acclaimed saxophonists.

“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Harding recalled. “The lead tenor in a big band gets the solos — and the girls can see you. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to play this big, ugly horn! You gotta be kidding!’”

But he grew to love the instrument, exploring sounds and styles to discover his voice on the bari. While still in high school, he studied with Yusef Lateef, Thomas “Beans” Bowles and Herbie Williams, and played alongside Wynton Marsalis and Donald Byrd.

Chakra - Alex Harding & Lucian Ban | Shazam

In 1993, he relocated to New York, where he played and recorded with a wide array of musicians and spent time in Hamiet Bluiett’s baritone sax group, the Mingus Big Band and the Sun Ra Arkestra. An October 1997 JazzTimes review of Bluiett’s band said Harding “attacked the music with steamroller momentum and uncommon ferocity … it was sheer fireworks.”

Harding returned to Detroit as his home base in 2015.

“My parents were getting older,” he said, “so I figured it might be good for me to spend more time close to them. My father got sick towards the end of the year, and then he died in November, so I really needed to support my mom. I decided to stay, but with intentions on eventually going back to New York at some point. And as time went on, that desire to go back to New York diminished. My mom died last year, but Detroit is still home.”

Harding spends half the year or more traveling to play or record. He’s excited that the Blue Llama show is an opportunity to flex his musical muscle a bit closer to home, with up-and-coming young organist Clif Metcalf and drummer Djallo Djakate.

“We’re going to do some Mingus and some Monk,” he said of the performance. “Some Duke Ellington, some Eddie Harris. The way we do it? It has to swing, and it has to be full of soul!”

Alex Harding” by C. Andrew Hovan - Jazz Photo

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