Gregory Harrington’s ‘Without You’ Casts Pop Standards in a Jazz Light

Gregory Harrington’s new album Without You was released June 16, 2019. Featuring jazz interpretations of pop music standards, the album a tribute to his late father. (Photo: Angelo Gavrias)

For Without You (Estile), his fourth album, Gregory Harrington selected 11 love songs that span jazz standards, rock tunes and television themes. The Dublin, Ireland-born, New York-based violinist invests deep emotion into his reads of songs from diverse sources, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind” and U2’s “With or Without You,” not to mention the theme to the TV series Lost.

Throughout, he receives sensitive backing from pianist Simon Mulligan, bassist Leon Boykins and drummer Matt Scarano. The album is dedicated to his father, who passed away three years ago. It was released on Father’s Day 2019. JAZZIZ recently spoke with Harrington over the phone to discuss the making of the album and the challenge of making popular music sound new. Below is an excerpt of the conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: The album is very personal, very poignant. You released it on Father’s Day, and it’s dedicated to your late father. What role did he play in your musical life? 

Gregory Harrington: Dad and Mom were awesome. But Mom was always the one who was for music, and Dad was always, “Listen, son, you’ve got to get a real job.” When I was 4, I was at a horse show with my mom in Dublin, and a string quartet was playing, and I loved the sound of the violin, and I went after that. And she went right in the next day and bought me this little violin. She passed away in ’95, while I was in college. I was doing a business degree in Dublin, and later, I was in Spain studying for the Spanish part of my degree. She got to see me win a couple of violin competitions, do a couple for recitals, flashes of stuff. But she never really got to see me as a professional.

But after that, Dad came to see me at a recital in London and that was the first time he said to me, “Actually, I’m no longer nervous when you’re on stage.” And he sort got slowly into it in a phenomenal way. So for about 15 years, he would come on tour with me or come to concerts. It turned out to be the thing that he loved. California, Mexico, China — he would come anywhere just for a few days to support me.

I opened for a group called The New York Tenors at Carnegie Hall about four years ago. It was the first time I did a program of standards with a quartet. I didn’t know quite how it was going to go. But the reaction was absolutely phenomenal, and that was really the genesis of this album. So my father heard about half of the material from this album. He loved [my take on Leonard Cohen’s] “Hallelujah.” But he passed away three years ago, before I could complete it. And so I dedicated the album to him. He became a phenomenally supportive influence on me.

Like a lot of violinists, you have a strong background in classical music. When did jazz enter the equation?

Jazz was always there in the background. Growing up, I would say I was subconsciously aware of it. My mom would play it on the radio and whatnot. I knew Brubeck, I knew Miles Davis. But I was listening to mostly classical. But when I saw Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” I became fascinated with that. Because he had a classical background, too, and his combination of classical and jazz influences on that song just astounded me. And then I fell into Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I started studying and absorbing as much as I could. Few violinists successfully cross over from classical to jazz, so that became the goal for me. I didn’t want the music to sound labored, like it was being translated.

(Photo: Jacob Mante)

Chris Montgomery, my producer, was responsible for choosing a lot of this material, and he and I would have long conversations about what we were going to include. I’m actually really proud of the album, because I think there’s a real freedom to it. It’s not a “classical sound.” It’s a violin, and while violin isn’t as mainstream in jazz as, say, a trumpet, I think there are some incredible moments in it. It’s a great first step.

What was your approach in taking a song as iconic as “With or Without You” by U2 and bringing it into the world of jazz?

The thing about good music is that, no matter what it is, it can be at home in any genre. So the idea was that if you have “With or Without You,” can you put that in a soundscape so that somebody listening to it would think it was written for the violin? You create sounds that haven’t been created before, you voice it in a way that hasn’t been done before. You challenge the audience to hear it in a different way. Because, as an instrumentalist, you don’t have the luxury of playing with lyrics. So you have to be so much more creative and nuanced in how you do this to actually keep a mainstream audience engaged.

There’s a similar challenge to arranging jazz standards like “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves.” The job of any arranger is to bring a sense of freshness to these tunes. How did you approach those Great American Songbook standards?

I tried to have an end goal of how I wanted my sound to be perceived. So, for example, “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen. It’s such a powerful song. And while it’s not a jazz standard, per se, it’s definitely a standard of modern music. Now, you can regurgitate the Jeff Buckley or k.g. lang versions, and you’ll get some good initial traction, but you haven’t done much. You’ve got to do it in a way where you stand out and do something different. You’ve got to give people the option of either loving it or hating it. But you’ve got to go to that point. I think this album is about a powerful sound of difference that makes the listener engage with things they haven’t heard before.

How did your ensemble come together?

This is a phenomenal group of players. Leon [Boykins] and Matt [Scarano] were actually at that show at Carnegie I mentioned earlier, and that was the first time I met them. And Simon Mulligan is this incredible classical pianist with such imagination as a jazz musician. It’s very rare to get that combo of a classical virtuoso who can do jazz. I love working with people who are open and easy to work with and fun. No matter what’s said, it’s all about pushing the boundaries to see where you can go. I had toured with the guitarist, Ric Molina, previously, and Eleanor Norton on cello is absolutely incredible. I’m lucky to have these musicians by my side.

Harrington performs regularly with his quartet in and around New York City, where he is based. His other groups include the Symphony Orchestra Project, Project 360 and The Movie Scores Project. For more information on Gregory Harrington, visit that artist’s website. His album can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon

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