November 15, 2008 / 5:29 AM / 10 years ago

Movie role hardly a stretch for jazz musician

NEW YORK (Billboard) - “Rachel getting married . . . ,” Donald Harrison Jr. muses before the friends and family assembled at a fictional wedding. The setting is director Jonathan Demme’s latest critically acclaimed work, starring Anne Hathaway; Harrison’s opening line is the film’s title.

Harrison’s character, a jazz musician and close friend of the bride’s father who is a music industry executive, isn’t a stretch. Yet Harrison inhabits it with the same arresting blend of charisma and humility that he brings to the various roles he plays in his native New Orleans. They include jazz saxophonist and bandleader, with a new album, “The Chosen”; mentor to young players through a weekly nonprofit workshop; and Big Chief of Congo Nation, extending the Mardi Gras Indian tradition he inherited from his late father.

“Rachel Getting Married” explores several powerful themes as stitched into the lives of a single family. Before the nuptials, Harrison lifts his alto sax and plays “Rachel Loves Sidney,” which serves as a recurring musical motif. (The song appears on the Lakeshore Records soundtrack.)

That Harrison entered Demme’s extended family seems only natural. His mother, Herreast, opened her then-destroyed home and her life to Demme three years ago when the director began gathering hundreds of hours of footage for his documentary, “Right to Return: New Home Movies From the Lower Ninth Ward.”

One day when Demme and his crew were in the yard, Harrison played a bit of “Amazing Grace” on alto sax. Then, he grabbed a tambourine and, with his sister, Cara, and a nephew, Kiel, by his side singing, underscored the Mardi Gras Indian traditional “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” to that same rhythm. Demme shook his head in wonder. “Donald is a true virtuoso,” Demme says, “and the Harrisons are a royal family of New Orleans culture.”

“Acting came naturally to me,” Harrison said as he walked the red carpet along with Demme and Hathaway, before a premiere at New Orleans’ Canal Place Cinema. “It seems a lot like making music, the give and take with those around you, the sense of context necessary for everything you do.”

He likens Demme’s directorial flair to that of a musical idol, Charlie Parker. “Like Parker’s music, Jonathan’s work flows as if it’s real life,” he said. “I’ll play in his band anytime.”


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