Veteran trumpet player Keyon Harrold makes the most of his connections in the jazz and hip-hop communities on his vibrant third release, ‘Foreverland.’
Stream: “Find Your Peace” – Keyon Harrold
I use everything that I have to speak truth to power, to speak life into people’s situations, and to speak beauty into people’s hearts and souls with the vibrations that I put through my music.
Hip-hop and jazz have a long history of intertwining,
dating back to old-school records such as The Low End Theory and Reachin’. From Kendrick Lamar to Kamasi Washington, many of today’s leading artists in each genre have an appreciation for the other and oftentimes incorporate it into their own music.
One of many individuals exemplifying that trend is Missourian musician Keyon Harrold, who grew up in a musical family that helped him to foster a love for trumpet-playing, a passion that he wound up honing at the jazz conservatory of the New School in New York City. It was there that he crossed paths with piano-playing classmate Robert Glasper, who helped him to secure his first professional music-playing gig as an onstage trumpeter for popular Chicago rapper, Common.
Harrold has continued to jazz up many rappers’ works in the years since then, from providing the trumpet hook in Jay-Z’s 2007 hit “Roc Boys” to tooting onstage behind Eminem and Rihanna on 2014’s Monster Tour. His two solo albums— Introducing Keyon Harrold (2009) and The Mugician (2017)— included a fair amount of rapping, track titles like “Hip Hop Joint,” and some of the sociopolitical outspokenness for which rap music is often well-known.
With his third album, Foreverland (out Jan 19), Harrold will keep his brand of hip-hop-tinged trumpet-playing alive and strong.
Lead single and opening track “Find Your Peace” brings back his early creative allies, Common and Robert Glasper, while also channeling Harrold’s reactions to a 2020 incident in which his son was assaulted in an NYC hotel lobby.
The rest of the album is sure to feature plenty of more high-octane trumpet-playing, along with some notable guests from the current jazz community – PJ Morton, Laura Mvula, Chris Dave, and Greg Phillinganes among them. Furthermore, Harrold will be promoting Foreverland through a series of live performances, including a trifecta of evenings at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Lower Manhattan, only a short stroll away from where he studied at the New School all those years ago.
Keyon Harrold kindly spoke to Atwood Magazine about his hopes and visions for the third roll of the jazzy dice he’s about to cast.
A CONVERSATION WITH KEYON HARROLD
Atwood Magazine: There are all sorts of instruments out there. How is it you settled on the trumpet as the go-to one for your creative expression?
Keyon Harrold: I think the idea of the trumpet for me came when I was very young and I fell in love with it right away. My grandfather had a drummer-bugle corps in which I remember learning how to play very, very early… like [when I was] 5 or 6 years old. By the time I was 11 or 12, I knew I wanted to do it for a career because the sounds and the vibrations just basically stole my whole imagination. I would spend hours and hours every day figuring out how to make the best sounds and vibrations… and I just wanted to be like people like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. So, the horn just spoke to me. And it wasn’t a hard thing to do. It was natural, like picking up another art.
Your two solo albums feature a lot of trumpet-playing, as well as social commentary on the current events of the day. What was on your mind back then and how did you incorporate those thoughts into your music?
Keyon Harrold: As an artist, my job is to basically be a truth-teller about what’s happening in the world— whether that be sociopolitical, whether that has to do with things that are happening to me directly, with love, with indifference, with racism or bigotry or biases or whatever. As an artist…. I am a figure that has the courage to speak out against injustice. I’m all for that, so I use my music.
I play the trumpet – that’s my first part of being involved with music. But I’m not just a trumpet player. I’m an artist through and through, so I’m a singer, songwriter, producer, educator [and] advocate of music. But as a player, as an artist, I use everything that I have to speak truth to power, to speak life into people’s situations, and to speak beauty into people’s hearts and souls with the vibrations that I put through my music, through my recordings and through live [performance]. So, it’s not just a single-faceted movement for me. It’s like a life approach to how I engage with people.
As an artist, my job is to basically be a truth-teller about what’s happening in the world. I am a figure that has the courage to speak out against injustice.
“Find Your Peace” is both the album's lead single and first track, so it's evidently a song you want people to hear right away. What makes that the case?
Keyon Harrold: For me, “Find Your Peace” is such a statement, and such a realization, and such a place that we should all be trying to find. It’s the Zen part of who we are, and all of that starts inside. Whatever that truth [is] that we find inside, we can actually push it outside to other people. But it takes a long time to figure out what that is. So, I said on the record that it can be yoghurt, it could be watching a television show, it could be doing your laps, it could be walking or doing a hike or something like that. You never really know, but whatever it takes to find that peace where you can be the highest vibrating version of yourself— that’s the vibe, that’s what we need to be putting out.
So, I wanted to write something like that because, musically, it sets a mood. It’s like a soundscape for positivity, a soundscape for virtual reality, for people to just feel and just experience. It’s not really a rushed song; there’s not a lot of lyrics. It’s more of a mantra: “Find Your Peace Inside.” Cause you know, you can’t really change the shit that’s outside, but everything that’s inside, you have the ability to transform and make your ally for betterment of the world.
It’s basically about that, man. [With] Common, Robert Glasper, Jean Baylor of the Baylor Project all on the record, and Chris “Daddy” Dave on the drums as well, it’s just a projection of positive energy and a vibe that puts you in the mood in the morning. When you’re doing your yoga, this will be the vibe to put on. The message is important and the idea of finding peace inside is everything. I feel that’s what we’re all looking for.
“Find Your Peace” is like a soundscape for positivity, a soundscape for virtual reality, for people to just feel and just experience.
What was it like constructing the album Foreverland? How do you manage to express yourself across this mostly instrumental album?
Keyon Harrold: It’s been a long time coming for the production of this album. It started a couple years ago— the ideas, the initial demos— when I went to Vegas [in the midst of the pandemic] to basically let off some steam. I wanted to go to Vegas with friends and just do music because we hadn’t really played or been in the same room with people for close to two years. It was my birthday and I just wanted to put down some ideas, but it turned into the album.
The initial tracks were laid out in Vegas, and I added all of the other collaborations and elements— from Common to Laura Mvula, Robert Glasper, Greg Phillinganes, and PJ Morton. Well, actually the song with PJ Morton, we created together a little later in the studio, but it was a whole movement; it took some time.
It wasn’t a rushed thing. It wasn’t, “Let’s go to the studio for two days and the album is done.” It wasn’t that kind of project— it was a very thoughtful project, as it took time and each work [and note] means something. There was no throwaway artist; there was no artist that wasn’t a friend and a relationship. There there were no session musicians per se. I don’t hate on session musicians, but this was kind of like a family reunion vibe of music, with people that I’ve been working with since the year 1999 up until now.
[That includes] Common, one of my biggest influences and mentors in the music biz. My first professional gig was working with Common. Robert Glasper – we met when we were children. Jean Baylor – we met just making music with his band, the Baylor Project. PJ Morton – we met working with Erykah Badu. These are all full circle moments in music. It was a beautiful process to see [unfold].
What are your hopes for your upcoming release party at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City later this month?
Keyon Harrold: I’m excited to perform at the legendary Blue Note in New York City. That’s a place where the legends have all played and it’s just an opportunity to release this new project into the world. January 22nd-24th is going to be incredible. I’m going to have many of the musicians and artist who were a part of that album perform, so it’s going to be a beautiful reflection of love, hope, peace, [and] mastery of the instruments. Incredible performances, incredible music.
It will be the first culmination of what this album is in real time. It’s been a long time coming to finally let the cat out the bag, so I’m excited about that. It’s going to be a special time and I invite anybody to come out and see it. It’s jazz, it’s hip-hop, it’s R&B, it’s rock, it’s soul – it’s everything in one. It’s the New Jazz; it’s building upon what was in the present to create what’s coming in the future. So, I’m excited to be a part of that zeitgeist, and it’s going to be a special time.
You’ve had many high-profile collaborations over the years – Beyonce, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, etc. What’s it like working with big names like that? How does it feel when you have such well-known celebrity performers enlist you as your trumpet player?
Keyon Harrold: I’ve been blessed to be a trumpeter of note of the day. So, I’ve been doing that since probably the year 2000 until now, from working with Jay-Z– being on his song “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)”– to working with Nas. Nas signed me to Mass Appeal Records with my last album. His dad was a jazz musician and he felt it would be a good idea to sign me, so I was the first and only jazz musician signed to a hip-hop label. We did a song called “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack).”
Big K.R.I.T., an amazing artist from the South, we’ve done so many songs [together]– “Cool 2 Be Southern,” “Drinking Sessions,” [and more]. Common, Mos Def… I’ve just been blessed to have the right vibe to fit in, but at the same time, the right musical makeup of jazz, of harmony– of appreciation of hip-hop and all music– to make those collaborations meaningful and powerful. It’s not really like I’m excited to work with a rapper– it’s kind of like, they’re excited to create incredible music and beautiful art. Taylor Eigsti, we worked on the Miles Davis movie together with Robert Glasper, and that soundtrack won a Grammy Award. So, I’m very blessed to be a part of incredible royalty in music, but as a trumpet player.
Speaking of the Miles Davis movie (the 2015 biopic Miles Ahead), that’s one of several film projects you’ve worked on, along with the HBO series about the Lakers, Winning Time? When you’re making music for film, what sort of steps do you take so that your compositions will capture the spirit of the onscreen subject matter?
Keyon Harrold: That music from Miles Davis [promoted] idea of improvising, the way that Magic Johnson would have improvised on the court. That stuff’s in my DNA. I’ve watched basketball my entire life; I love basketball. Miles Davis is like the epitome of what I want to be like as an artist, as a trumpet player, as a musician, [and] as an influential person in art and music. So, for me, it was more of me just being myself, but at the same time, respecting and reflecting on all of the opportunities I’ve been given.
When I go into the studio, I’m just pouring out all of the experiences that I’ve been enriched with. So, it was a great opportunity and a great idea to collaborate with such people as Robert Glasper and Don Cheadle and the Lakers series. It was just a special, special thing to be in the room, to be in a studio, to watch Magic happen, to watch nothingness turn into amazingness.
I am hoping that people will get a chance to hold on to this piece of art and are inspired by the vibrations, the words, and the musicality that’s been put down on this album.
How do you hope that fans will be better acquainted with you and modern-day jazz better by listening to Foreverland?
Keyon Harrold: I am hoping that people will get a chance to hold on to this piece of art and are inspired by the vibrations, the words, and the musicality that’s been put down on this album. The vinyl, the CD, however you stream it, whatever – [I hope] that you’re able to take away the positivity, that you take away from the love, that you’re able to give and spread love, that people are able are ultimately able to be inspired by my life, my music, my journey, my approach.
That’s what I hope people will take away – that they’re going to leave smiling and either be resurrected if they were down or at least have an opportunity to reflect. I want them to be able to do all those things, to be smiling and happy, and that their heart is more open after they listen to the record or experience a live show.
Any final thoughts?
Keyon Harrold: The album comes out January 19th. Stream it, buy it, come check me out at a live show. I’d love to meet and hang out with anybody who engages with the record.
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© Kwafu Alston
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