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Playing What He Likes : * A recent anthology showcases the many experiments of veteran jazzman Eddie Harris, whose fans have learned to expect the unexpected.

March 25, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times. and

RESEDA — Eddie Harris is proud of his recent CD package, "Artist's Choice," which examines the veteran jazzman's career between 1961 and 1981 on Atlantic Records. But he's not preoccu pied with the CD, nor with the glories of his past.

That 20-year period launched the Chicago-born saxophonist and pianist and led to his most popular successes, including the 1961 record of "Exodus," which was the first jazz single to sell 1 million copies. There also were such tracks as "Listen Here" and "Cold Duck Time," and the 1965 song "Freedom Jazz Dance," which has since been recorded by more than 30 subsequent artists of varied genres.

Harris chose the tracks for the anthology, which was released by Rhino/Atlantic last year.

He also has five newer albums out right now, with more on the way, all of them exploring different facets of music that early fans of Harris might find surprising.

After all, in recent years Harris has played blues with Albert Collins, recorded bluegrass, Latin jazz, funk and other styles. Not only that, but the longtime instrumentalist has been singing , too, "a la Ray Charles and Nat King Cole," he says with a smile. So when he arrives Monday at the Common Grounds in Northridge, fans may well wonder which Eddie Harris will be on stage.

"I'm still encountering purists who think I'm totally off my rocker," says Harris, who has come from his home in Los Angeles to a Culver City hotel restaurant to discuss his multiple musical directions. "It's easy. I just have the mind set to do that. I detest categories. You should follow your mind first."

It goes back to the advice once given him by Billie Holiday, an early champion of Harris' playing. He says she told him: "No matter how good you play, somebody's going to dislike you. No matter how bad you play, somebody is going to like you. The biggest thing is, do you like what you play?"

To Harris, who as a young man in the Midwest played in bands with such innovators as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Roy Eldridge, "that makes a lot of sense."

That same attitude, he admits, has sometimes caused him problems with labels that have wanted him to follow a consistent hit-making formula and concert promoters who want to hear only the hits and not his usual onstage experimentation. It has also worked to his advantage.

"That was always the case," Harris says, wearing a dark fisherman's cap. " 'Exodus' came by mistake because I was signed to be a piano player. They said, 'You sound too weird on the saxophone.' "

When he finally did record Ernest Gold's "Exodus" on the saxophone, Atlantic was convinced, and allowed him his experimentation.

Harris has developed several new customized versions of saxophones, trumpets and other instruments over the years for his own use. He also quickly incorporated electronic instruments into his music and was an early developer of fusion.

*

The musician's tendency toward personal experimentation on stage leads Harris to tell audiences: "Don't feel bad if I play something you didn't like. It probably didn't occur to you, but I didn't like it either. But I didn't know I didn't like it until I started it, because I'm experimenting." He laughs. "That's the truth.

"Jazz has become too predictable. It's becoming pop music," he says, noting that artists are too often crafting one show to be like another, with the same song list and choreography. "What happened to jazz, the spontaneity? It went out the window."

His own spontaneity was put to the test several years ago when he arrived at a gig in Cleveland with an empty saxophone case. While another musician in the audience ran home to bring back his saxophone, Harris just stood on stage and talked, and entertained. That experience ultimately led him to release an entire album of on-stage banter.

He explains: "I'm a person, not Eddie Exodus ."

The Harris performance marks a significant step for the Common Grounds coffeehouse, highlighting its regular Monday jazz night with a veteran artist who has more than 70 albums to his name.

Admission to the show is a $2.50 minimum purchase. The venue already regularly brings in such notable players as guitarist Rick Zunigar, a longtime sideman to Stevie Wonder; percussionist Brian Kilgore, who has played on more than 100 pop and jazz albums, and Bob Sheppard, the current saxophonist for Steely Dan.

"Monday used to be our slowest night," says owner Paul Solomon, himself a onetime professional jazz trumpeter. "Then I instituted this jazz policy, and now it's one of our biggest nights. There is an audience out there for jazz."

LIAISON: WHERE AND WHEN

What: Eddie Harris at Common Grounds, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Reseda.

Hours: 9 p.m. Monday

Price: $2.50 minimum purchase (coffee, tea, sandwiches, salads, desserts; no alcohol).

Call: (818) 882-3666.

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