The Man and the Machine
Eddie Harris was known for eccentricity throughout his career. His first album featured an arrangement of the theme music from the movie Exodus. A radio length version of that track was played with great success on the air, and was the first jazz record to be certified gold. This commercial success caused his jazz audience and cohort to quickly become detractors because he had “sold out”. Although his peers were quick to decry his commercial success, his eccentricity grew. His adventurous nature lead him to both commercial success and public confusion. He recorded albums that sold well on Jazz and R&B charts and eventually, albums that pushed the vast majority of his audience away. However, after his decline in popularity, he maintained a vibrant musical career, playing with Horace Silver in the 1980's and writing much of the music for The Cosby Show. Through his tumultuous career, his individuality was never a question. He invented instruments like the Reed Trumpet, the Saxbone, and the Guitorgan. He recorded with rock acts like Steve Winwood and Jeff Beck. But by far his most notable identifier as an individualist, was his early adoption and rather successful use of the Varitone.
The Varitone was an electrical amplification system that was also the first method by which effects, such as octave doubling and delay, were applied to the saxophone. In 1966, Harris was the first adopter of this technology both live and in records, with Sonny Stitt following suit the same year. Although it became commercially available in 1967, sold by Selmer as a package deal with a specially modified Mark VI, the Varitone itself was not a commercial success. This did not stop Harris from recording hit records with it. His mixture of Jazz, Funk, and Soul provided a perfect platform for a more modern and electrified saxophone.
His first album on which the Varitone can be heard was The Tender Storm, an album more focused on straight ahead jazz than the funkier style he would later have so much success with. On this album, you can hear the infancy of his relationship of his relationship with the Varitone. He only uses the octaving effect, and uses it sparingly. On the album's final track you can hear an extended section of Eddie by himself where the sound of the Varitone is showcased:
Following his first attempt with the Varitone, Harris released what might his most well known and most comercially successful album, The Electrifying Eddie Harris. The album was a major step forward for Eddie, especially with the song”Listen Here”, a track where the Varitone is heavily featured. In fact, this track reached number two on the Billboard Charts:
Later that decade, in the same year Hendrix changed music forever with his electric musical voice at Woodstock, Harris released his first live album with the Varitone. Anchored by the rhythmic genius of Billy Hart, Eddie can be heard on this album using octave and delay effects. This showcased more of the versatility of the Varitone to wonderful ends. Here is one particularly funky track:
In his next offering with the Varitone that same year, Free Speech, Harris pushed the saxophone's effected limits even further, employing wah effects as well as some other sounds. This can be heard on the supremely funky “Free Speech”, again with Billy Hart on drums:
Eddie continued to experiment, and record with the Varitone into the 70's. He went further into his own experimental universe in 1972 with the additions of the Reed Trumpet and other off beat instruments of his own design. This experimental period got more and more strange, culminating in the 1975 release, The Reason Why I'm Talking Shit, a compilation of pseudo-comedic ramblings in between tunes at various live sets. Here is a funny cut from that album entitled “The Next Band” (Warning: explicit language):
This marked a turning point in his career and the last of his truly notable releases, as he had seemingly pushed away much of his audience with his experimentation.
Eddie Harris, although a divisive figure in the jazz world, is a musician of undeniable individuality and influence. Regardless of his perceived greatness or strangeness, his contributions to the world of music are many. He is the true original pioneer in the use of effects with horns. He has blazed a trail for those of us who pursue this type of musical exploration. Without him, there would be no wah on Miles's Live-Evil, there would be no crazy effects on Brecker Brothers albums. Eddie Harris opened up the world of effects to horn players, and his contributions will not go unnoticed. For all you have done, Eddie, we thank you.
© Douglas Levin, 2017