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Unassuming Tenor Saxophonist with an Original VoiceCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Harold Land was an original voice in the crowded field of bop-inspired tenor saxophonists. He chose to spend most of his career in Los Angeles, where his sharp, hard-edged sound went against the perceived norm of the so-called cool sound associated with the west coast. He will be remembered particularly for his two year spell with the great band co-led by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, one of the seminal jazz groups of the mid-1950s, and his own classic albums, In The Land of Jazz and The Fox.
He was born Harold Paul Land in Houston, but grew up in San Diego, California (an aunt later added DeVance to his middle name -- thanks to Eric LeBlanc for this information). His interest in playing jazz was sparked by hearing Coleman Hawkinss famous version of Body and Soul, and Hawkinss big tone and robust approach became a major early influence on his sound, along with models like Don Byas and Lucky Thompson.
The eruption of Charlie Parker on the jazz scene in the mid-1940s added a whole new approach to Lands armoury, and he developed as a distinctly modernist player, although the influences of his early mentors never disappeared entirely from his sound.
He moved to Los Angeles, then a vibrant jazz and rhythm and blues centre, but found it hard to make significant progress. He established his standing on the local scene, but his big break arrived in 1954, when trumpeter Clifford Brown brought his co-leader to hear Land play at a jam session at the home of saxophonist Eric Dolphy.
Roach was immediately impressed, and the saxophonist was invited to join the group. He moved to Philadelphia, where the band was based, and remained with them until late 1955, making a positive and lasting contribution to their music. He is featured on their classic Study in Brown album, but his wife and young son had remained in Los Angeles, and he was unhappy at the enforced separation.
When he heard that his grandmother, to whom he was particularly close, was dying, he gave up his role in the band, and opted to return home prior to the tragedy in which Brown and pianist Richie Powell were killed in a road accident in June, 1956.
Many commentators have felt that he would have been an even bigger name had he remained on the east coast, but he went on to make significant contributions to jazz in any case. He recorded several albums as a leader in the late-1950s for the leading west coast label, Contemporary Records, some of which are regarded as classics, notably The Fox, in which he collaborated fruitfully with the underrated pianist and composer Elmo Hope, and the rather mysterious trumpeter Dupree Bolton, a brilliant player who subsequently disappeared from jazz.
He joined the group led by bassist Curtis Counce, recording several albums, and also led or co-led groups with another leading Los Angeles bassist, Red Mitchell. He recorded with pianist Thelonious Monk on a live album at the Blackhawk club in San Francisco in 1960, and formed a notable collaboration with vibes player Bobby Hutcherson in the mid-1960s, a relationship which continued in occasional fashion over the subsequent decades.
Land was influenced at this time by the innovations of John Coltrane, and his sound and approach changed quite radically for a time, adding further depth to his armoury. Like many of the west coast players, he supplemented his income by playing studio sessions for film soundtracks in Hollywood, but continue to lead his own groups and make occasional recordings as a leader.
He co-led a band with trumpeter Blue Mitchell in the mid-1970s. The revival of interest in acoustic jazz in the wake of the fusion era brought him back into prominence in the 1980s, and he began to tour the European festival circuit, often as a member of the Timeless All-Stars, a group which included the late Billy Higgins on drums. Land and Higgins co-led a quintet in recent years, a group which continued until the drummer, who predeceased Land by three months, became too ill to play last year.
In recent years, the saxophonist also taught in high schools in Los Angeles, and in the jazz studies programme at the University of California in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, Lydia; his son, Harold Land, Jr, who is a jazz pianist; and a grandson.