Harold Land

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The Independent Online

Harold de Vance Land, saxophone player: born Houston, Texas 18 February 1928; married (one son); died Los Angeles 27 July 2001.

There have been few players as consistently original as Harold Land, the tenor saxophonist whose work graced the West Coast and Los Angeles for 50 years.

His talent was not as prodigious as those of his idols Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, but he was perhaps only a few notches behind them. Despite his abilities, he was a shy and modest man. Had he not been, he could have been one of the great figures of the Fifties and Sixties. Instead, apart from short tours to Europe and elsewhere, he stayed on the coast, where he was taken for granted.

But his 15 minutes of fame was extended to a couple of years when the trumpeter Clifford Brown took the drummer Max Roach to a jam session in 1954 to hear a new tenor player who intrigued him. Land played regularly at these informal sessions with his friend Eric Dolphy who, until his early death in 1964, was one of the great jazz innovators of the era.

Brown and Roach were the best in the world on their instruments at the time. The fact that they hired Land to play in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet should have set the tenor player up for life (when he left the group, Land was replaced by Sonny Rollins on his way to the top).

The band toured continually, and for convenience Land moved to Philadelphia. But he left the band when his grandmother, of whom he was particularly fond, contracted a fatal illness. By then he had a world-wide reputation as a great player, but he never cared to exploit it.

Before Brown had spotted him, Land had had little work. He had moved to Los Angeles and "it was crackers and peanut butter for quite a while". At the time there was a white school of tenor playing that dominated the West Coast area. It was smooth and easily eloquent and was typified by such great players as Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca. Land's dry and harder tone and advanced phrasing was unique to the area in tending towards the more rugged East Coast style that became known as "Hard Bop".

Land was born in Houston in 1928; his family moved from Texas when he was a baby and he was brought up in San Diego. His interest in music developed when he was 16. "Coleman Hawkins and 'Body and Soul' had a lot to do with drawing me in," he said. He took private lessons for six months and from then on was self-taught. When he left school in 1946 he started playing professionally in San Diego. "I played clubs, casuals, every type of gig – picnics, too."

He rethought his playing style when he heard Charlie Parker for the first time in 1948. "He had a completely new approach to phrasing, sound and harmonic conception," Land said. "I also realised that all this was just his inner voice. There was no way for it to come out in any other way."

Land made his first records under his own name for Savoy in 1949 when he was 21. After leaving the Brown-Roach group he joined the band led by the black bassist Curtis Counce in 1956 and stayed for two years. He also led small bands under his own name, too. He worked regularly in the Los Angeles big band led by Gerald Wilson.

He made his first album, Grooveyard, for Contemporary in 1958, using some of the more imaginative musicians in Los Angeles like the trumpeter Rolf Ericson and pianist Carl Perkins. Regarded by many as his most potent album, The Fox was recorded in 1959. It featured a remarkable young trumpet giant, Dupree Bolton, who had many of the qualities of Clifford Brown. By the time these were realised, Bolton had vanished and neither Land nor anyone else ever found him again.

Land co-led a band with another bassist, Red Mitchell, from 1961 to 1962. He began playing on Hollywood film soundtracks and went on to make about a dozen albums under his own name during his career. The emergence of John Coltrane caused Land to lean in Trane's direction, and for a time his style went out of kilter, but he soon resumed his more mainstream style.

In 1967 he and the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson formed a quintet together that lasted for three years, but their deep musical association lasted much longer. Another doomed and brilliant trumpeter, Blue Mitchell, partnered Land in their quintet from 1975 to 1978. Land was invited to festivals and eventually began visiting Europe, playing with the Timeless All Stars and in 1992 with the Steve Grossman band. He played at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 1998.

Steve Voce