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Don Harvey composes intricate 'open music'

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360
His father's sculptural screens are used on the CD cover.

A shimmer from the cymbals follows a rumble from the piano. A simple, halting melody emerges. Then, with urging from drums and bass, that tune breaks into a gentle lope, brightened by flourishes from the accordion and guitar. What began as an anxious, uncertain melody relaxes into a sunny, sinuous epiphany.

"Allen's Studio" opens Austin musician Don Harvey's new CD, "Light Shines Through." The recording's six intricate yet refined cuts nicely reflect the curious images on the album jacket. Those meshes of black, white and gray are taken from sculptural screens designed by the composer and drummer's late father, Dick Harvey, a New York artist and engineer who adapted Persian and Arab grillwork through latter-day materials and sensibilities.

Similarly, the younger Harvey's modern music, which can be heard weekly during a Saxon Pub residency on Sunday afternoons, encompasses chants and carols, dips and whirls, wild rides and dreamy musings; as well as beguiling apparitions that reflect his lifelong devotion to rock, jazz and classical music.

Harvey calls these genre-defying pieces "open music."

"I couldn't come up with anything else," he says. "It's open to whatever and is evolving."

Such intriguing art must come from an intriguing guy, right?

In the case of Manhattan-born Harvey, 55, that's absolutely right. Though admirers might delight in the faint echoes of Brian Eno, George Gershwin, patriotic songs, film noir soundtracks or Middle Eastern filigrees, what makes it all possible is Harvey's deeply felt links across the musical spectrum in Austin, Israel, Los Angeles and on the road.

"His eclectic, enthusiastic, fresh demeanor and creative openness are naturally attractive to a wide array of performers," says Stefano Intelisano, who co-wrote two songs on "Light Shines Through" with Harvey. Intelisano was captivated by Harvey's disciplined yet free format. "Pureness of sound, simplicity, attention to tone are elements that can result in surprisingly beautiful and complex music in the end."

It took Harvey almost 50 years to reach his musical goals. His earliest memories hark back to his parents' heavy 78-rpm albums that predated the 33-rpm and 45-rpm formats.

"They had a collection of classical music from when they were kids," he says. "My first record, a gift on my fifth birthday, was Stravinsky's ‘Firebird Suite.' "

Dvorak, Brahms and Berlioz stimulated Harvey's imagination. So did show tunes from "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story." A taste of modern music arrived as a silver-wrapped album of Spike Jones. The first pop albums allowed in the house were the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" and "Herman's Hermits: Their Greatest Hits."

"Music made an enormous impression on me," he says. "When I was 5, 6, I wanted to be a composer and conductor."

It would be hard to improve on Harvey's creative pedigree. His father was an artist and an engineer who designed midcentury modern façades, room dividers and sculptures that eventually became highly collectible. He also spent years working on a model of the city of Jerusalem. His mother, Ethel Schwartz Harvey, sorted out the business side of her husband's work, but she also painted and continues to do so at age 87.

Harvey's childhood on Long Island sometimes resembled scenes from TV's "Mad Men." The descendant of Hungarian, Polish and Sephardic Jews, he wasn't a good student. Younger than the rest of his class, he couldn't focus or concentrate.

"To be honest, I gave up in the first grade," he says. "I did manage to graduate high school."

Playing drums for a rock cover band as a teen helped boost his confidence and honed his socializing skills. Yet he was completely unprepared for life's next chapter, when his parents moved to Israel. Harvey was 17 with no college plans.

"I had no idea what else to do," he says. "I studied Hebrew in a kibbutz and had my drums shipped over. I was kind of a lost soul."

Being a stranger in a strange land, Harvey made the most of it, knocking on the doors of musicians he admired and offering to play drums for them. His first paying job was backing a Hebrew-language actor playing comedian Lenny Bruce. The weekly gigs lasted a year.

A key musical influence was a Kurdish bass player who exposed Harvey to "deep Middle Eastern music." He fell in with a group of leftist intellectuals and toured the country with Yonathan Geffen and the Good Band, whose mixture of political commentary and music proved popular and durable.

Then the sort-of-big fish — an American drummer! — moved to a much bigger pond. In 1980, he followed his sister, an artist, to Los Angeles.

"It was complete culture shock," he says. "I had been immersed in Israeli culture, which was informal, closely knit. In L.A., nobody walks. There was nobody on the streets. I was scared."

Although he took a job in a warehouse packing and loading crates, he couldn't stay away from music. Harvey played drums with rock and R&B bands, but no artist of note until 1985.

That's when he auditioned for Charlie Sexton, who had just finished "Pictures for Pleasure."

"I wanted that gig so bad," Harvey recalls. "I needed to get out on the road and make a name for myself. Charlie said: ‘This is the guy.'"

He played with Sexton, who gave him the nickname "Don Don" after a room assignment mistake, for two years. Just as importantly, he met Sexton's tour manager Wayne Nagel, who introduced Harvey to Austin.

"We hit all the hot spots," Nagel says of their first Austin stop. "Continental Club, Antone's, Barton Springs, El Mercado, etc." He fell in love with the city.

"I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Harvey says. "It really just stuck in my head: the phenomenal music scene. People seemed really nice. It was small, not impersonal, plastic."

At one point, Sexton changed producers, so Harvey and the rest of the band lost their jobs. Yet he had gained Austin.

At the time, the city had no comprehensive rehearsal studio. So Nagel and Harvey started the Austin Rehearsal Complex, always referred to as the ARC. It opened just before South by Southwest in 1990.

Located between two musical lodestars in the Continental Club and Arlyn Recording Studio, below what is now SoCo shopping center, the ARC filled a gaping niche.

"The ARC functions as a South Austin hub for the music community, a nerve center for touring bands," wrote American-Statesman music critic Don McLeese in 1996. "Anyone looking to find a tour manager, a roadie or an opening act — or anyone looking to become one — can get what they need by networking at the ARC. Even the bulletin board overflows with notices from those trying to buy service or sell themselves."

Harvey had found his calling. Just five years after it opened, however, the ARC family was struck by tragedy. A promising musician with the breakthrough band Pariah, talented Sims Ellison, committed suicide. Suffering from depression, Ellison had often hung out at the ARC with girlfriend and actress Renée Zellweger.

"The ARC became ground zero for the mourning," Nagel says. "After an article in the Statesman by Michael Corcoran pointing out the need for counseling for musicians, SIMS was founded."

Harvey and Nagel, along with friends and Ellison's family, including father Don Ellison, created the SIMS Foundation, which still provides mental health and addiction recovery services for the music community.

A counterpart to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, or HAAM, which looks after general health for musicians, SIMS was embraced by Austin, but it faced some rocky years when board members tried to run the small nonprofit themselves.

"It went through many rough times," Harvey says. "It ended up being not so great for my mental health. We made some mistakes, but we got it going."

More recently, it has soared under new management, which pleases founders like Harvey and Nagel.

"I think they're all sleeping better at night knowing that this wonderful project they started so long ago is now adequately staffed and funded and is providing a level of quality that makes them proud," says SIMS director Tricia Forbes. "They are always on the sidelines when they're needed. It's lovely that they're still part of the SIMS family in a meaningful way."

Over the years, Harvey became an accomplished sideman, working regularly with Ian McLagan, Joe Ely, Ronnie Lane, Storyville, Billy Bragg, Martha Davis and Broken Homes.

"Don as a good example of a musician who is growing old gracefully," Nagel says. "Don has become a musician's musician."

At age 52, Harvey got around to his original mission. Using some of his favorite musicians as collaborators, he composed seriously, putting out the project-based EP "A Dance in Red" in 2009.

"When I started writing music, it was organic," he says. "It felt like I'd been struck by lighting. Something in my brain jolted that kid inside me that was listening to classical music as a child. I was coming up with these melodies and I had to do something with it."

With all the variations on suggestively familiar melodies, his work is sometimes mistaken for jazz, although it isn't built on jazz grooves. At other times, his music reveals a solid rock ‘n' roll foundation.

"The ‘melody' element and a fairly rock/straight structure remain the core of the project," Intelisano says. "But so many colors and variables play around these two elements with no real limitations. Our fairly dry Jewish and Italian humor combined might ‘shine through' in the music and I believe it shows in the personality of the compositions."

It won't pay the bills, though. At one point, Harvey faced a choice: A life constantly on the road away from his wife of 20 years, Kate Harvey, and his teenage sons Adam and Ian, or finding a day job.

He had written for CitySearch and served as music director for the ill-fated Austin Music Network for a year. Yet a protracted dispute over the ARC, which closed in 1999 after inspiring the all-star Arc Angels band, introduced him to fresh career.

"That taught me a lot about real estate in general," he says. "I thought I'd hate it. Lo and behold, I did really well and I like it a lot."

A licensed Realtor, he now specializes in residential real estate. Many of his clients are musicians or music lovers. With other artists, he formed Austin Music Realty, a division of Stanberry & Associates. Turns out he's gifted at ironing out differences between sellers and buyers, even at the last minute.

"Don is a man of integrity and a dedicated family man," says protégé career blender Patricia Vonne. "He knows the art of negotiation and knows his craft both musically and professionally in the real estate world."

He has sold homes to Kathy Valentine, Bill Kirchen and Jon Neiss, among others. "Light Shines Through" was recorded at co-producer and engineer Neiss' Austin Signal studio.

"I never would have met Jon if I hadn't been working in real estate," Harvey says. "We became pals."

In just a few years on the ground, he's seen Austin alter significantly. Gone are the days when a struggling Austin musician like himself could rent a lovely, shaded house within easy walking distance of downtown for $400. Yet Harvey sees more positives than negatives in the city's urban life.

"All life is change." Harvey says. "Nothing is constant. Austin is attracting people because it has a lot to offer. Hopefully, we are attracting more creative people which will make us more creative."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com