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  • Jonathan Widran

JASON HARNELL, Total Harnage

When Jason Harnell was six years old, his father, Grammy winning composer and arranger Joe Harnell, invited Louie Bellson to their house to hear the budding prodigy play. After playing a 15-minute solo, the legendary drummer handed the sticks to Jason and said, “Your turn.” When Jason finished, an impressed Bellson gave the boy his drum set – replacing the toy kits he had used up till that point. As a world-renowned jazz drummer, educator, composer and bandleader ensembling with countless greats over a 30-plus year career, Jason has played thousands of soul-transporting solos since. Yet he’s never jammed as cleverly, adventurously and “out there” as he does on a new recording and multi-media experience whose title speaks to its intricate, fascinating craft as much as his massive personality: TOTAL HARNAGE.

Taking the traditional concept of a “drum solo” to unprecedented, otherworldly levels, the 12 track/12 video clip collection find the multi-talented musician unleashed from all traditional, contemporary and jazz fusion configurations of his past and embracing a fresh, experimental and groundbreaking future for the art of drumming and the possibilities of percussion. As the names of his popular hard-gigging L.A. based ensembles – Joe-LeSs ShOE, 3-ish, Sigmund Fudge and GO SHLOMO! – might indicate, Jason has always enjoyed bringing a sense of humor to a genre that’s often quite serious (“I prefer sincere to serious,” he says). On TOTAL HARNAGE, he ups the comedic ante while incorporating elements of so many things he loves in life - including classic films, superheroes, classical music, Indian music, ambient electronica and abstract art.

“If you play as long as I have, even if it’s in ensemble settings or helping create the pockets in the service of others, you can end up finding your personal voice as an artist along the way – and that’s a beautiful thing,” Harnell says. “The music I’ve been playing the last 20 years of my life was very fulfilling, but when the opportunity came about to create a show by myself, it opened up all these incredible creative avenues I had never considered in a typical band setting. The live audio-visual presentations that inspired the recording and creation of TOTAL HARNAGE kicked down the doors of my imagination and afforded me an opportunity to take my drumming places I had never gone before. There were all different kinds of timbres, textures and templates to play with.”

Jason’s evolution into performing solo drum concerts for the first time in his career started unexpectedly in 2017 at the infamous Oyster House Saloon in Studio City, CA. After another burning, improvisation-rich trio gig with saxophonist Bob Sheppard, the charismatic bartender/proprietor Christopher – a huge fan of Jason’s – asked if he would be interested in doing a solo drum concert. Shocked and reluctant at first, Jason thought about all those as yet unexpressed ideas floating around in his head and realized this was the universe offering him a plum opportunity. The Jason Harnell Solo Drum Experience was born, incorporating a full range of what he calls “sonic delicacies,” including drums, vocals, loops, apps and effects.

The first show sold out - and by the second of six total shows at the club, Jason was using a large screen to incorporate dynamic visuals into the presentation. Growing more elaborate over time, the show included a wide variety of curated content, including scenes from films, abstract art, a journey through the cosmos and vintage cartoons. “People seemed to really dig it and I was having a blast exploring all kinds of fresh creative ground,” he says. In 2018, he took the show on the road, performing for students and the general public at colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell, Cal Arts, University of Nevada, and Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Recorded at fBoo Music in Burbank, TOTAL HARNAGE is a fanciful, joyfully schizophrenic gathering of his favorite pieces from the wealth of material Jason amassed for his solo gigs. He performed two of them at his very first show – “Sara Song,” a soulful and dreamy homage to his wife and best friend of over 31 years (since high school!), featuring Jason’s passionate vocals and subtle cymbal and drums; and “Bloom,” a trippy and hypnotic flow of atmospheric coolness, with the drummer creating highs, lows and offbeat patterns over beautiful textures and ambient soundscapes of the Brian Eno co-created audiovisual app Bloom.

True to its title, the opening track “Trance” – originally written for GO SHLOMO!, Jason’s duo project with Adam Benjamin - is a meditative, polyrhythmic homage to Indian table master Zakir Hussain fusing Eastern percussion and Western jazz influences while using a raaga consisting of 27 beats to create a 27/4 meter. “Jaws” is the first movie the drummer ever saw and is an all-time favorite. He pays tribute to his childhood shark obsession with “Bad Fish,” completely improvised drum sketches performed as accents to Quint the Shark Hunter’s (Robert Shaw) speech in the town meeting room. Jason taps into his classical influences on two of the project’s more tuneful tracks, Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor,” presented as a booming piano/drum jam with the original tracks of masterful concert pianist Glenn Gould; and the offbeat, mystical, ambient piano/high hat crescendo driven “The Magic Circle of Infinity,” a modern classical composition by American composer George Crumb.

The other tracks are likewise all over the stylistic and tonal map – but somehow combine to share a narrative of Jason’s life and loves. Blending his throaty lead vocals with backing drone voicings, he wrote the beautifully melodic “Lullaby” as a universal message of peace out on a hike one day in Southern California. The quirky and hilarious “Captain Amazing Saves the World” finds the drummer in Rod Serling mode, narrating (with subtle drum backing) a colorful tale comparing a superheroes to jazz musicians “with powers and abilities not of this world.”

“Thirty Eight” is an original abstract solo drum composition with several movements, each featuring a different sonic template/textural landscape. He wrote a graphic score and drew shapes reflecting the sound after his first live performance of the piece. For musical tech heads, the title refers to the number of notes played in the repeated rhythmic motive throughout the piece. Jason says, “This track features the incredible creativity and auditory wizardry of my good friend and engineer on this project, Keven Brennan. Keven’s artistry is omnipresent throughout this entire album, but nowhere more prominent than on this track.”

Starting with a wild Al Jarreau-like scat percussion vocal and building towards a powerful interaction between that vibe and soaring sung vocals, “What Thing” – featuring only Jason’s voice and no skins - is an original composition in 11/4 loosely based on Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love.” The most spot-on thing we can say about Jason’s take on “Moon River” is that nobody – not Henry Mancini, not Audrey Hepburn, not the millions of fans that have made it one of the most beloved songs of all time – have heard a version as haunting, sparse and esoteric as this one. It’s kind of like isolating the drum track of a full recording, building in percussive texture and intensity. With “When You’re Smiling,” Jason takes a catchy 90 year old song and throws the sonic kitchen sink at it, drawing on his formidable comedic powers to create a freewheeling synthesis of sounds (chaotic symphony?) that includes a purple toy drum set, gramophone style vocals, yodeling, fireworks, a few chickens, a bit of Ricky Gervais and a massive gong, among other things!

Reflective of its unique creative vibe and audiovisual presentation, TOTAL HARNAGE is being sold (thus far) via Jason’s website in two different formats – LP (so the colorful album artwork can “pop” better) and as a USB flash drive shaped like a cassette that contains the music and all of the accompanying videos (several are already up on Youtube).

About Jason Harnell

Carrying on the legacy of a prominent musical family, Jason Harnell’s unmistakable sound and charismatic style, as well as his boundless creativity and enthusiasm have made him a major contributor to the Southern California jazz scene for over twenty-five years. He has performed, recorded and toured with many of the world's top jazz musicians including Larry Goldings, Bob Sheppard, Dave Douglas, Anthony Wilson, Alan Ferber, Kate McGarry, Steve Cardenas, Theo Bleckmen, Joel Harrison, Ben Wendel, Rick Margitza, John Beasley, Bruce Forman, John Pisano, Alan Pasqua, Walter Smith III, Kei Akagi & Maynard Ferguson. In addition to co-leading, gigging and recording with JoE-LeSs ShOe (a bass-less trio), 3-ish (an adventurous chord-less trio), Sigmund Fudge (an eclectic modern jazz quartet) and GO SHLOMO! (a daring keyboard/drum project), Jason is a member of the long-established Los Angeles Jazz Quartet featuring Larry Koonse, Chuck Manning and Darek Oles.

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