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John Harle, Taking Control.

John Robert Brown

John Harle begins, deadpan, by identifying his mouthpieces and reeds.

We both laugh.

The cliché image of saxophonists forever discussing their gear amuses us both, because Harle's success is due to much more than his choice of mouthpiece, or the fact that, good as they are, he uses number four strength Vandoren reeds. We start by discussing his new record company, Harle Records1.

"I've decided to take control of my own recordings, in the same way that many musicians have done in the last few years," he says. "I'm constantly being asked about these records and where people can get them. There's an extant demand, with no real supply from the original record company. So I've been buying back my music from DECCA, EMI and the BBC to release them myself. I've decided that if I spend proper time and control, the end result is better. They are quite a nice package, I think, don't you?"

The records, issued as a box set as well as individually, look good - and I say so.

"They were expensive," says Harle. "I've got a great distributor in Naxos2, who were originally Hong Kong-based. The company here is called Select3. No matter how interested big record companies are in you, they are not going to take the trouble to do this sort of thing properly. Naxos are very ambitious for it. They've ordered 17,000."

The Naxos group now includes Chandos, Hyperion, BIS, and others. Clearly, Harle is aiming for quality. He thinks that many musicians have realised that since the breakdown of the cartel that existed prior to the internet, records are available to make the artist a greater return. Now the artist can take charge.

"I went up to the Northern Sinfonia last month to record them for the next album on Harle Records, which is my second opera, The Ballad of Jamie Allan4. We've performed it in The Sage, but we're going to do it up in Northumberland at Alnwick Castle and in Durham Jail. Jamie Allan was an eighteenth-century Northumbrian, piper to the Duke of Northumberland, and a wanted criminal. Allan had a double life. On the one hand he was a magical musician, playing for royalty. On the other hand he was a horse thief who deserted from the army five times. He died in Durham Jail aged 75, which was quite spectacularly old for those days, having been pardoned from a death sentence by the king."

Harle's opera was performed by the Northern Sinfonia, with Kathryn Tickell playing the Northumbrian pipes, baritone Omar Ebrahim as Jamie Allan, and Sarah Jane Morris, the jazz singer, as his wife. "That's the next release," says Harle.

John Harle was public-school educated. His family goes back to 1590, to Kirkharle in Northumberland. Harle's grandfather was the first family member to move to Newcastle. In turn, John and his brother were the first in the family to move to London. Kirkharle is little more than a cluster of houses and a small church, twenty miles north of Newcastle in the Jedburgh direction. The headstone commemorating an earlier John Harle can be seen in the shade of an old yew tree in the Kirkharle churchyard. "It's an ancient family," says Harle. "We have a shield - with which we must have gone into battle against the Scots - but no money," he adds. He laughs, and considers the more recent past.

"I suppose I'm the oldest of a generation of English players, in which my original sonic concept was a combination of Jack Brymer (whom I adored) on the clarinet, and Johnny Hodges on the alto. Those were my two main influences. My father took me to many Duke Ellington concerts. In fact, I was at the Sacred Music concert in 1974, where I met Duke Ellington. But the sonic concept originally was the clarity and smoothness of Jack Brymer on the clarinet. I was a very active clarinet player, in the Coldstream Guards band. But also with that lyricism of Johnny Hodges and the freedom of the saxophone."

Harle gave up the clarinet partly because of Jack Brymer who, after hearing him play the clarinet, said: "I really think you'd like this."

"He shoved a soprano in my hands," says Harle. "That was the first time I played it. He was right. He was clever - very perceptive, very astute. He saw what I was trying to do. I think he thought I was a saxophone character playing the clarinet. So it was really Jack Brymer, and then my exposure to Johnny Hodges, that created what is in terms of the legitimate French-American too broad a sound, but which has over the past thirty years proved to be relatively successful - if not adhering to the normal classical principles of playing."

Harle explains: "My embouchure is based on the strength of muscle that you would need if you were playing sub-tone over the whole instrument all the time. It's not based on any jaw pressure."

I observe that he pivots the lower half of the instrument back, pointing the crook towards the floor much more than most players, in the manner of David Sanborn, Snake Davis and Jan Garbarek.

"Yes. I had the crooks on my altos changed. I was doing a lot of Alexander Technique. I was really working out for myself where the areas of tension lay. With the standard crook, the instrument was pushing too far up and too far into my body, thereby creating an area of tension at the back of my neck and over my shoulders. I found that if the crook angle was changed to became higher and further away from the body of the instrument, I was able to relax my shoulder. This was probably over twenty years ago. I was the first person in my world to do it."

Again, isn't this another example of John Harle taking control? I can't help reminding John that jazz saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre had his tenor crook altered in this way some fifty years ago. And before then, the straight alto had completely changed the angle at which the mouthpiece entered the player's mouth. "Yes. The most incredible experience is to play a straight alto5," says Harle. "Wonderful things. But then to try and create some of that relaxation, with the effect of going down to the bottom without much of a problem with a normal curved body, means changing the crook angle. And also having the instrument high enough on the sling, so that it enters your mouth at an angle, without you having to bend down towards it."

Does this mean that manufacturers will begin to provide saxophone crooks that incorporate this less acute angle?

"Really serious students of mine all seem to do it. They realise that it releases a lot of tension."

Before we slide into the conversational quagmire of mouthpiece numbers and reed strengths, I change the subject and commit the next worse sin: I ask John Harle about his compositional methods and equipment.

"I use Logic6, and an [Apple Power Mac] G57, with pro tools8. I start work at the piano with pencil and paper."

Harle's CV makes mention of the saxophonist's professional admiration for composer (and one-time clarinettist) Harrison Birtwistle. How did they first meet?

"In my twenties, I was at the National Theatre for eight years as an actor-musician. I was doing acting and musician parts. Harrison Birtwistle was the musical director of the National at the time, with Dominic Muldowney as his musical assistant. I was performing in shows there, while at the same time doing other things that are more widely known, such as the Concert Artists' Guild9 award. I was working as a soloist, and with the Myrha Saxophone Quartet, while we were at the theatre. During that period I was immensely influenced by Harrison Birtwistle, and very attracted by his use of medievalism. Although I have a different harmonic language, obviously, a lot of the great influences in my composition and the way that I hear things are influenced by Harry. You can't really study with him. He's not that sort of person. You either decide that you want to be helpful to him - and he'll be a bit helpful to you - or not. His formal composition students used to have to mow his lawn! To that extent it's a bit like going to an Indian tabla master."

Did the students really mow Birtwistle's lawn as a form of payment?

"I think they paid as well! But I didn't pay. I was just heavily influenced by being around him, talking to him, understanding where his particular type of Englishness came from. That's the one thing that I feel quite strongly about my saxophone playing and my composition. They are rooted in a form of Englishness. You could take that further to say that some of the songs that I've written have influences from people like Dowland. John Dowland should be listened to more widely. He really was the singer-songwriter of Elizabethan England.

"A lot of my research into English music, combined with Harry [Birtwistle], has brought about a personality that is English. You can hear that on the Three Ravens10 song. I suppose they are also cinematic as well. I've done a lot of films, and there's a sort of epic Englishness about them."

With modern software, and considerable experience in the theatre, does Harle compose quickly?

"Yes." He answers without hesitation. "I have two different areas of music. To me, writing for film and television has always been a form of musical journalism. There's good quality journalism, and good quality short story writing. If you read H.G. Wells you read some epic short stories. In general, I'm a better short story writer than a Shakespearian - or Dickensian-scale writer. But I've written two operas and am nearly through a third one.

"At the moment I'm writing a piece for Henry Bok, the bass clarinet player, a duo for bass clarinet and saxophone which is going to be recorded. That's probably twenty minutes of straight music, called The Bride of the Wind. We are going to premiere that at the World Saxophone Congress11 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in July. I'm going over there for two days, also to perform Andy Scott's new Double Concerto, with Rob Buckland."

As for the future, the saxophonist is currently considering moving from London to Kent, with the idea of building a recording studio,"With a proper piano and a proper space," says Harle.

Another example of taking control, I guess.

Web Site References:

  1. John Harle's website
  2. Naxos
  3. Select Music
  4. Chester Novello
  5. Straight Altos
  6. Logic
  7. Power Macs
  8. Pro Tools
  9. Concert Artists
  10. Chester Novello
  11. World Saxophone Congress
An edited version of this article first appeared in CASS Magazine, the journal of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain, in March 2006. Used by permission.
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