Artist Biography by Steve Huey
Long underrated in the pantheon of jazz greats, Eddie Harris was an eclectic and imaginative saxophonist whose career was marked by a hearty appetite for experimentation. For quite some time, he was far more popular with audiences than with critics, many of whom denigrated him for his more commercially successful ventures. Harris’ tastes ranged across the spectrum of black music, not all of which was deemed acceptable by jazz purists. He had the chops to handle technically demanding bop, and the restraint to play in the cool-toned West Coast style, but he also delved into crossover-friendly jazz-pop, rock- and funk-influenced fusion, outside improvisations, bizarre electronic effects, new crossbreedings of traditional instruments, blues crooning, and even comedy. Much of this fell outside the bounds of what critics considered legitimate, serious jazz, and so they dismissed him out of hand as too mainstream or too gimmicky. To be fair, Harris’ large catalog is certainly uneven; not everything he tried worked. Yet with the passage of time, the excellence of his best work has become abundantly clear. Harris’ accomplishments are many: he was the first jazz artist to release a gold-selling record, thanks to 1961’s hit adaptation of the “Exodus” movie theme; he was universally acknowledged as the best player of the electric Varitone sax, as heard on his hit 1967 album The Electrifying Eddie Harris; he was an underrated composer whose “Freedom Jazz Dance” was turned into a standard by Miles Davis; he even invented his own instruments by switching brass and reed mouthpieces. Plus, his 1969 set with Les McCann at the Montreux Jazz Festival was released as Swiss Movement, and became one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time.
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