Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Keyon Harrold: Blowin’ Up

Keyon Harrold
Keyon Harrold Keyon Harrold

In this age of economic strife, low morale across the globe and a lack of artist development in the music business, it’s uplifting and empowering to be in the company of any individual who takes pride on leaving any situation they’re involved with on a more positive note…

…I mean, really! This particular Wed., Jul. 11, 2012 afternoon a few minutes past four -- marked by a tad bit of rush hour traffic outside tag teaming with hints of turbulence and technical difficulties via our phone connections -- wasn’t quite as difficult as attempts to lock down a feasible time to conduct this particular interview. Not that I was apathetic or anything, but I felt slightly ill prepared: like I wasn’t bringing my personal best to the table as I attempt and intend to do with every interview. A week and a half prior, delayed e-mail correspondence and missed voicemails went back and forth – partly because I was underground on the MARTA Northbound train -- between two publicists and myself: only to encounter further interference from a seemingly filibustering meeting five days prior to this conversation. Under the circumstances, we collectively still manage to make it work.

Needless to say, it’s quite a joy to hear Keyon Harrold voice his gratitude and passion over the next fourteen minutes and a few seconds: words and a spirit both marked, intrigued and humbled by being the choice trumpeter for The Immortal World Tour, Cirque du Soleil’s latest production effort that pays homage to the late “King of Pop” Michael Jackson. The show had just wrapped up an impressive date in Hershey, PA and was set to move onto Washington, D.C that evening. Never mind the massive video projection screens, cutting edge sound effects equipment, ostentatious scenery, gaudy staging, oversized props, lavish costumes, dancers, acrobats, choreographers and contortionists for a second. Try to image how the opportunity in itself – listening and having an all-access pass to Jackson’s master recordings while listening to personal narratives about performing and recording alongside the legendary entertainer -- marks yet another triumphant moment in the St. Louis-born trumpeter, producer, songwriter, composer, bandleader and horn arranger’s career: considering he’s performing in the big top production-meets-Tony Award-winning Broadway spectacle alongside Jackson’s longtime go-to keyboardist (and Cirque’s musical director) Greg Phillanganes and drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett. I caught Atlanta’s Fri., Jun. 29 premiere at Philips Arena and was actually still hungover from the sensory overload and nostalgia from one of my favorite entertainers hands down myself.

As one will be able to detect in a few moments, I wasn’t the only one. Harrold – R&B, soul, gospel and hip hop’s most sought after trumpeter – embodies the essence of a true musical gentleman and a scholar. New School University’s famed Mannes College alumnus (receiving his bachelor’s in jazz performance in 2004) and protégé of Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Owens, Laurie Frinck, Eddie Henderson, Cecil Bridgewater and Charles Tolliver displays profound discipline, respect and focus in his craftsmanship rarely found in today’s performers. His flawless jazz performances are a mesh of romantic (and rhythmic) horn riffs and upbeat improvisational stylings that landed him some great experiences accompanying some of the music industry’s most consummate superlatives: David Sanborn, Lauryn Hill, The Count Basie Orchestra, Fred Hammond, Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, Reggie Workman, Prince, Jill Scott, Destiny’s Child, Kelly Price, Common, Janet Jackson, Andrae Crouch, Usher, Chaka Khan, Beyonce, Rodney Jerkins, Richard Smallwood, Snoop Dogg, The Clayton Brothers, John Hicks, Robert Edwards, Gregory Porter, Notch, Marcus Strickland, PJ Morton, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Christian McBride, Derek Trucks, Billy Harper, James Carter Organ Trio, Cecil Brooks III, Israel Houghton, Soulive, James Spaulding, Leon Lacy, Mark Whitfield, Big K.R.I.T., Roy Hargrove, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and The Hawkins Family. The music extraordinaire notably laced the memorable riff on Jay-Z’s 2007 single “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)” and even arranged all horn parts (of course contributing all trumpet performances) on Maxwell’s 2009 double Grammy Award-winning fourth LP, "BLACKsummers’night": on top of Mary J. Blige and John Legend’s “King And Queen,” Anthony Hamilton’s “Fair In Love” and Joss Stone’s “I Believe It To My Soul.”

For contemporary music, Harrold might as well be jazz’s ultra-Renaissance man. Under his production imprint, KeyKat Productions (or its alter ego, K-Lassik Beats), Harrold has managed to also co-write and produce bangin’ tracks for hip hop artists 50 Cent (“Touch The Sky”), Mobb Deep (“Backstage Pass”), Young Buck (“Funeral Music”) and LL Cool J (“Bump This”): not to mention producing gospel acts Kierra “KiKi” Sheard, James Hall, DeLeon and The Murrills along the way. The musician leads his in-house horn section, KeyKat Horns, and performs in the reknown brass quartet, Mo’ Horns. His music was also featured on HBO’s Entourage and the video game EA Sports MMA. In the midst of being in-demand, the performer even found enough time to record his 2009 debut LP, "Introducing Keyon Harrold," on the Criss Cross label.

Before long, Harrold – a master of the Adams Flugelhorn -- considers our conversation “a pleasure:” reiterating that he hopes we can continue to stay in contact with one another. It’s evident post-conversation that anything is indeed possible. His humble nature allows him to give direct, genuine responses and even paying forward some life lessons that can easily transcend across anyone who is set on finding their purpose and following their passion.

…on working with Greg Phillanganes.
“Man, it’s incredible since he is a direct linkage to Michael. I’m getting firsthand information as to what was going on when they were creating and when they were touring and when they were in the studio with Quincy [Jones] and all of that, so it’s a great experience. For me as a musician and as a producer as well, just learning from him, you know? Hand to hand, it’s a great experience. I get a chance to just really hear the stories and really connect the history they had together.”

…on adapting between doing Cirque du Soleil and performing with or producing other performers.
“You know what? There’s not really any difference because I’m still doing music. I’m still performing, so it’s not really that different in that aspect. The thing that is different I guess would be the addition of incredible acrobats and different people doing contortion, straps, people flying all over the place while I’m performing. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same as far as incredible artists working together…the history of Cirque du Soleil in itself is amazing, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.”

…on preparation for Cirque du Soleil.
“It was a very enlightening experience: working with Kevin Antunes [the person who put the whole show together] that was pretty amazing lights out as far as watching this production come together. Most people came in last year, and most of the dancers and acrobats may have came in two months before the band did. We came in last August, so day to day was listening to the music, learning the music. Fortunately, it’s Michael Jackson, so for the most part, everybody knows Michael Jackson. What I remember when I was young and actually playing it ‘cause as a musician, it’s a lot of stuff that we hear that we’ve actually never played, so for me it was that kinda thing…so learning “Billie Jean,” learning “[Wanna Be] Startin’ Somethin’”…learning what Jerry Hay and Quincy Jones had put down and really listen to that was incredible ‘cause as the band, we were able to have the individual masters of everything that was recorded. So we had a free vault to hear Michael Jackson stompin’ on the ground. Each individual part of Thriller down to the Bad sessions, we had each individual file. That was very very enlightening to me as well as the rest of the band, even Greg [Phillanganes] for that matter, had everything just broken down. That was just a life changing experience; the work ethic from everybody in the cast was amazing. So we would end early and out late until the whole production came together, so took about two months to really put it together from when I came in…from August to October.”

…on his success.
“To be professional and to be diligent. Only two things? That’s tough ‘cause there’s so much. Be very professional…I mean so much that entails being on time, being willing to learn, being willing to work with other people, being willing to really try to grow the role that I’m in. Anything that I’m a part of, I really wanna try to take it to the next level ‘cause most of the time, the people who hire you, they have a vision of what they think it should be, but you have to make it to what they think it should be…but you also have to make it yours. That’s what I try to do anytime I work with someone.”

…on what younger jazz musicians should consider.
“From the beginning, you gotta practice…that’s number one. As soon as possible, get a teacher because that’ll shorten the role that you take as to doing things maybe wrong longer than you want to. A teacher will help you get passed a lot of hurdles that they’ve already encountered, so it’ll just work you to where you need to be. You need to be in the right position at the right place, so if you feel like you should be in New York, go to New York or L.A. or Nashville or wherever you’re at. You gotta be willing to travel, and be willing to follow your destiny. Don’t follow the money; follow your passion, and everything else will make room. You gotta believe in yourself.”

…on creativity.
“(chuckles) I’m a lover of music and the arts; for me, it’s a blessing to be doing what I wanna do in life. Everybody can’t say that, and I know I’m blessed in that. Like I said before if I can tell anybody to do something, it would be follow your blessing; go for it. Go to your dreams; everything is possible. That may sound cliché, but that’s very very real. If you put your mind to it…the realest.”

For more information on Keyon Harrold, log onto keyonharrold.NET friend Keyon Harrold on Facebook or follow @KEYONHARROLD on Twitter.!/search/%40KEYONHARROLD
Words Christopher Daniel

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