Keyon Harrold Interview

This feature was originally published in the April Edition of Jazzwise magazine
From his soundtrack work on the Miles Ahead biopic to his beat creation
in the company of hip hop heroes such as Common and 50 Cent, Keyon
Harrold has explored an eclectic array of musical avenues during his
career, which have all coalesced on his latest long-player, The Mugician.
Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the Missouri-born trumpet-player about this most
intimate of albums, which serves as a poignant personal reaction to our
current dystopian times.

Although it divided critics and general public alike, Miles Ahead did more than start conversations. Upon its release in 2016 the Miles Davis biopic, which is anything but monochrome in every sense of the term, gave a significant boost to the career of Keyon Harrold, who valiantly stepped into the dark prince’s shoes on the soundtrack.

In fact, the film’s director and lead actor Don Cheadle was so taken by the 37-year-old trumpeter’s performance he gave him a moniker which has had much staying power: “I was having a conversation with Don about the Miles Davis movie; we were at South by Southwest and he said, ‘man, you did a great job, it was really magical. You’re a musician and what you did was magical, so I said what like a ‘mugician’? It just kind of stuck. I went home, wrote the song ‘The Mugician’ and it kind of morphed into the album.”

Released in the latter part of last year The Mugician was more or less what followers of Harrold’s career to date might have come to expect. Sideman to the likes of Charles Tolliver, Billy Harper and Gregory Porter, Harrold had certified jazz credentials, but was also a known quantity in hip hop due to his work with Common and 50 Cent, for whom he had produced beats rather than blown horns, and had also collaborated with cultured soul singer Maxwell. Harrold’s 2009 debut Introducing Keyon Harrold served notice of his skill in a largely straightahead context, but The Mugician brings together all facets of his musical personality and features an array of excellent guests, such as pianist Robert Glasper and vocalist Bilal Oliver, who duly bought into Harrold’s deeply personal vision. “I wanted the album to be the sounds of Africa on the bottom, I wanted it to be drum heavy,” he says. “But I wanted the music to sound almost like Revolver by The Beatles, and Bilal was like, ‘OK, let’s do that’, and I wanted my horn to be reminiscent of what Miles Davis was like in the 1970s.”

“When I was growing up I saw the police every day outside of the house, they were on the block, they were following you up and down the street, asking you for your ID, even though you weren’t even driving,”

The Mugician, in any case, has the populist appeal as well as artistic richness that can be related most closely to the work of a fine Texan trumpeter whose influence is keenly felt today – Roy Hargrove. Harrold, whose own playing is articulate, but by no means attention-seeking on the album, was intent on giving vent to some of his most intimate feelings. Chief among them are the heartbreak of ‘Stay This Way’, a melody for his son in a post-divorce scenario, and ‘MB Lament’, a requiem for Michael Brown, the young African-American whose death at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Missouri, Harold’s birthplace, marked a nadir in racial justice in modern America.

“When I was growing up I saw the police every day outside of the house, they were on the block, they were following you up and down the street, asking you for your ID, even though you weren’t even driving,” Harrold reveals, his voice much more emphatic. “They were arresting people or asking questions. I saw this. My friends, my brothers, my dad, they were a part of this. And I thought it was just a regular way of life. I wrote ‘MB Lament’ because this kid was gunned down; he was unarmed, hands up and it’s just not the way life is supposed to be. I was living not to get shot, not to get arrested, living not to get taken. It’s not supposed to be like that. Growing up in Ferguson I had to embrace the reality of social injustice; it’s a real thing, it’s proven. Then I moved to New York City and things started to be different. Then I moved to Pennsylvania and I had a picket fence, and I never saw the police for three years. “It was a tough thing, but music was my healing and I had to have these songs written for me to even close that chapter in my life. The tenderness of some songs… that’s the way I see life… life is tender, these moments… you just never know. It can be here today, gone tomorrow, or here today and gone in the next five minutes.”

“A lot of the best music is made when you’re dealing with very real things”

Tellingly, the album references Black Lives Matter and the high profile protests against police brutality that have been inflamed by Donald Trump’s bearbaiting. The mega media splash created by the President’s undignified condemnation of NFL dissident Colin Kaepernick last year is something that is of immediate concern to Harrold. Yet he is also keen to put ‘taking a knee’ in a wider context, and without missing a beat he broaches the subject of how the artist might respond to era-defining events.

“A lot of the best music is made when you’re dealing with very real things, when you go back to the 1960s, the 1950s, anything that had to do with the world changing… the music was very good, it was visceral, direct and poignant, from Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ to James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud’ to any of Bob Dylan’s stuff. When people were honest and totally connected to the cause music got deep. I don’t really care for music that people just do for the hell of it, just to show their prowess on their instrument. I wanna get to the bottom of what the hell is wrong… so you know what’s going on.”

Book your tickets for Keyon Harrold here

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