Darryl Harper’s ‘The Need’s Got to Be So Deep’ a culmination of his work to date

The VCU Music chair’s latest offering, a two-disc set, features noteworthy collaborations and the many stylistic interests he’s had over the years

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In 2008, clarinetist Darryl Harper was on the road touring when his wife sent him an email. It read, “When you come home this time, come to Richmond, Virginia, because I just took a job at VCU.”

Such a statement would rattle most people, but Harper, who hadn’t been home much because of his heavy touring schedule, was unbothered. Not knowing much about Virginia Commonwealth University, and knowing even less about Richmond, he came here sight unseen.

“I was just really thrilled with what I discovered here as I met people and got to know the music community and the arts community and the community at large,” Harper said. He thought he even might be able to pick up a jazz history class at VCU, where his wife, Sonya Clark, had joined the Department of Craft and Material Studies in the School of the Arts.

Harper met with John Guthmiller, then chair of the Department of Music, and “things just kept developing.” Guthmiller asked him to teach a class and then learned that Harper was interested in administration. After that, Guthmiller kept giving Harper more and more assignments. When Guthmiller was promoted to senior associate dean of VCU School of the Arts, Harper was tapped to fill in as interim chair.

Even though Harper today is chair of the department — and an assistant professor — he still finds time to compose, perform and record. His latest album, the two-disc “The Need’s Got to Be So Deep,” is the culmination of different projects he’s had with various collaborators going back 20 years.

Harper recently sat down to discuss his background and his latest work.

One of your areas of expertise is world music. What is that?
That title is a little misleading or mysterious and problematic. There’s a field called ethnomusicology, which I would describe as a way that music history study developed. At first it started as a branch that was in opposition to the music history world and the idea was there was a group of people who felt that the music historians thought of Western classical music as the supreme — that was the standard. Every other music around the world was to be measured against the standards of Western classical music. And this group of people felt that that was inherently wrong and that there needed to be a different set of measurements and a different way of talking about this other music. They borrowed from these various fields — for instance anthropology — to study music the way that an anthropologist would study something. So it’s music within the context of culture. And that has now become a field that’s been around for a long time, with experts and people who write in that particular way. World music is kind of just a moniker that got attached to it.

How did you get interested in jazz and music to begin with?
Music was a long time before jazz and that was actually before my earliest memory. My mother had enrolled me in these courses that I think were Orff courses, which is this particular kind of system of music education where we were playing xylophones and recorders and that kind of thing. I was really small. I just kind of remember these vague images of doing it. And my mom — she always had wanted to study piano but the family couldn’t afford that at the time, so she decided very early on that she was going to make sure that I had music education. She made it a really high priority from the time I was very little.

But jazz came much later. I had been studying clarinet in school. I had a very good community music school in Philadelphia called Settlement. I studied piano; I studied music theory. I was in an orchestra, chamber music, you know, all different kinds of things. But there was this guy named Anthony Hurdle, who was about six years older than I was, and he was this amazing jazz trombone player. He came to teach at my high school when I was a junior and I just was … Stephen Sondheim talks about how if Oscar Hammerstein had been a dentist, then [Sondheim] would have become a dentist. That was kind of my relationship with Hurdle. I just wanted to be like him. And I wanted to be around him and he was a great jazz musician. One day, we had played a Christmas concert, and he asked me if I wanted to go listen to some music. He took me to this little club and I heard what this quartet was doing on the stage, and I just said, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to do. I want to do what he’s doing.” So I fell in love with it that year.

What did you do after high school then? What did you major in in college?
I was a music major. I went to Amherst College, a little liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. When I was a senior there I had become interested in world music. … I had studied Indian music for two years — one of them with this singer from Madras named B. Rajam Iyer, and the lessons were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I would come in for my lesson and everything took place on the floor. So, I had to take my shoes off, I’d sit on the floor, and he would say ‘Hello’ to me and that was the only word he ever spoke. He would just start singing and then I would have to imitate what he did and if he was satisfied with what I did, he would move on to the next phrase. But if he wasn’t satisfied, he would repeat it until I got all the subtleties that he wanted me to get. He never explained anything to me. He just sang, and I just played, and by the end of that year, I was playing, you know, short songs, in their entirety. I really knew them. I really had the phrasing down. I had the sound in my ear, so I just thought it was an amazing way to study. It was an amazing musical language and I wanted to learn more about it. So when I was a senior, I did my thesis on a recital of Indian music, a recital of jazz and a recital of European classical music, and I was basically investigating how can these three things all be music, but then all be so different from each other? And that was basically my thesis question.

Tell me about your new album.
This one’s called “The Need’s Got to Be So Deep.” That’s a line from a poem that is the title track of the album and that title track is the setting of a Yusef Komunyakaa poem. So that’s the first line of the poem and it comes back again and again. And the album represents a bunch of things. It’s kind of a culmination of work that I had been doing over a period of several years. There are lots of different formats on the album, so everything from duo, where I’m playing with a pianist or with a guitarist, to octet. It represents different projects that I’ve had over the years, different collaborators I’ve had going back 20 years or so, and a lot of composers that I asked to write for one or another of my ensembles. Lots of different stylistic interests that I’ve had over the years. In some ways it’s what for a visual artist would be a retrospective show and in some ways it’s all this new stuff that we’ve been putting together.

Did you write everything on the album, or did you ask other composers to send you pieces?
I wrote one piece on the album. “It’s called “Dances for Outcasts.” A nice connection on that piece for me was violinist Regina Carter plays on the piece and she is someone that I worked with for a couple of years. I toured with her band and so I was really delighted that she was willing to come and play this piece on the album. But that’s the only composition that I’ve offered on this record.

All the other compositions have been written by other composers and most of them are living composers, where I asked them to write for specific people. “Would you please write a piece for me to play clarinet with this other person or with these other people?” And that’s a particular way of working that’s important to some musicians and not others. For me, it’s very important because it has a lot to do with the specific relationships that I’ve cultivated over the years. I’ve been playing with my drummer [Harry “Butch” Reed] and my bass player [Matthew Parrish] for 25 years — 20 or 25 years — so when we play together … we know each other like family members know each other. We know the way, the turns of phrase, the cadences and all of the things that you know about your brother or your sister or your mother. And that is a really wonderful part of the playing experience. Those relationships. So I am trying to get composers to capitalize on those relationships.

One piece is written by a guitarist, Freddie Bryant, and it’s called “Anthem for Unity.” Freddie was a mentor of mine in college. He was a few years ahead of me in college and he showed me the ropes when I got there. You can have a piece for guitar and clarinet and that’s fine. But Freddie actually wrote a piece for him and for me and he had my way of playing in mind when he wrote the clarinet part and his way of playing in mind when he wrote the guitar part, so I have a very personal connection to the piece and he does too.

You play the clarinet. Do you play anything else on this album?
No, no, no. I don’t play anything else on the album and tend not to play anything else in public.

Do you ever get the urge to listen to one of your albums? Do you listen to your own playing?
I would be surprised if there were musicians who didn’t listen to their own playing. I certainly do a lot of that, but I think … what you’re talking about, to me brings up this idea that I tend to listen to myself critically, and I’m going “I need to get better at this and next time I do an album, I’m going to make sure that this happens. And next time I play that song, I’m going to make sure I take care of this detail.” I think that that’s part of learning and developing as a musician. And that’s fine. But yeah, we have to listen to these cuts for hours and hours, over and over again as we’re going through the postproduction process and we’re trying to put a record together that’s going to have the maximum impact on listeners. We want to make sure that we get everything right and that the particular things we want to bring out are brought out in the right way. So yes, I listen to my own music quite a bit, but I think of it as work. I would say I enjoy my work.

I have read some musicians say that they hate being asked about their influences. So I don’t want to ask that, but I want to know what would be a better question to ask?
The reason it’s a difficult question is that there are so many. I mean I already told you about Anthony Hurdle, who was a huge influence on me. I told you about Freddie Bryant who was a big influence on me, and there are so many others that I think it’s hard to know where to begin because if you let a musician go, they’ll talk for two or three hours straight. You know, all the records we’ve listened to, all the people that we’ve met who have been important to us. But I guess the other side of it, for me, is you could think about clarinet players who have been important to me because that’s my instrument. But I also think of myself as a musician. Maybe before I would say I was a clarinetist, I would say I’m a musician. That kind of broadens the scope of influences because there are all of these pieces that I’ve listened to or experiences that I had sitting in an audience and listening to a piece of music, or meeting a musician or that kind of thing.

But in terms of the kind of iconic jazz clarinet players that are out there, definitely in the album you’ll see a big connection to a clarinetist named Jimmy Giuffre. Jimmy Giuffre was very active in, I would say, the ’40s through the ’70s and he changed his style of playing many times — at times at the risk of falling out of favor with his record label. At one point, he was on one of the top record labels and they cut him loose after he pursued this free jazz style at the time. This was in the early ’60s. And there are a lot of connections that I feel to him because another person that you’ll see on the album is Yusef Lateef, and I would say for a lot of the same reasons.

Yusef Lateef was a [National Endowment for the Arts] Jazz Master, and he was also a teacher of mine. There was one time that I came to him for a lesson. I had studied a book that he had written, and I had learned essentially the whole book. I had learned how to play the patterns that he had written in the book, so I was excited because I had walked into this lesson and I said “I’m going to play these patterns for him and it’s going to be great.” And I started playing them and he stopped me and he said, “You know, the idea of this book was not so that you would learn my patterns, but that you would create your own.” Originality was very important to him and he would say things like he rejected the term jazz. He rejected the word improvisation. He rejected the word funk and he would not let people categorize his music very easily. He would say, “Well, why would you call that jazz, why don’t you just call it the music of Duke Ellington?” “Why would you call that jazz, why don’t you just call it the music of Darryl Harper?” There are many levels. Just listening to Yusef Lateef play was really compelling but also hearing his ideas was really compelling. And being inspired by this example of being true to what’s coming out of you, what sounds you’re hearing in your mind, getting those out into the world — that was the most important act to him. Jimmy Giuffre was the same way. To watch him stick to those principles, even though it was hurting him career-wise, that was very heroic to me.

What projects do you have coming up?
The next thing at VCU is I’m going to give a faculty recital on the music of Charlie Smalls, another great composer. He wrote the score for “The Wiz,” and he won a Tony award for that score, the Broadway score. There’s this tradition in jazz of borrowing music from many sources and one of the kind of primary veins that jazz musicians used to get their material from was from Broadway, Broadway scores, so you have all these Cole Porter songs and George Gershwin songs and I thought that that would be an interesting project to do with Charlie Smalls’ music. It’s great music and they are wonderful vehicles for jazz and improvisation. We’ll be presenting a bunch of his music in September. That’s the next big thing for me.

What would you like to add about “The Need’s Got to Be So Deep?”
There’s this connection to these musicians who were trying to mix Western classical music stylistic traits and jazz traits. There was this movement called Third Stream that started in the ’50s. Jimmy Giuffre was one of the Third Stream people. That’s a huge interest of mine, but there are other interests too so I don’t see it [as] a Third Stream album, but I do see it as referring to that legacy, you know, referring to that tradition.

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