Zeb Harrison packs a sound all his own. Part of it comes from the streets of New Orleans. Some of it hails from the church. All of it is intended for everyone.
While he spends the better part of the year on the road spreading that sound around, he makes sure come Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he is out adding his music to whatever celebration is going on wherever he happens to be.
"We have never missed a Martin Luther King event," Harrison says of his distinctively designed brass-savvy ensemble Sounds of Praise, which will help highlight Lexington's King Day celebrations Monday. "We might be booked in Miami or Atlanta or Montgomery, Ala. To me, this is music I just love to share with everybody, regardless of what race you are. This is music that's for everybody to rejoice and have a good time with. For an occasion like this, though, it's just an extra blessing."
Harrison's music doesn't really adhere to categorization. At its heart is gospel. In its feet is jazz. But the lines blur from there.
"It's a big band sound that's between New Orleans style music and contemporary gospel. We're not a Mardi Gras band, but we do have the instruments — the trombones, the sousaphones, even the euphoniums. But we also use a drum set. There's a keyboard player, too. The exact lineup depends on what types of tunes that we're doing."
On the surface, Sounds of Praise would seem to come out of the church tradition known as shout music: a smartly paced, percussive sound that served as a backdrop for vocal interplay. Popularized in African-American Protestant churches in the 1920s, the music's vocal characteristics were eventually taken over by ensembles of trombones.
Harrison's newest Sounds of Praise recording, God's Trombones, would seem a custom fit for that tradition. But the bandleader and trombonist doesn't want to be that specific or limited. He also doesn't want to keep his music under wraps in the church.
"We do more of a big band style music with a contemporary jazz flavor," Harrison says. "So I wouldn't call us a shout band. It's kind of removed from that.
"I've tried that shout band feel outside of the church and it doesn't grasp. It doesn't give you that motivation. People look at you and go, 'Okay, what are you playing?' So you have to identify. That's why I pick selections that people can go and sing the words to and identify with so they know what's going on in that brass sound."
Still living in the Charlotte, N.C., region where he was raised, Harrison is the product of a family with extensive and perhaps unexpected musical roots. His oldest brother was the late R&B singer Wilbert Harrison, the artist who popularized the Lieber & Stoller hit Kansas City in 1959 and wrote Let's Stick Together (later covered by everyone from Canned Heat to Bryan Ferry) in 1962. Younger brother Zeb, though, followed a different path.
"I was kicking music up when I was in the third grade," he says. "I was under two professors. In my third grade year up through the fifth grade, I was playing with five high school bands and jazz ensembles. In my high school years, I played with six jazz bands. Then I went to college and majored in music. So I was always in those situations where you could make the horn speak for you."
It spoke a lot in church, too, especially in the United House of Prayer, which was essentially ground zero for shout bands. But Harrison wanted to make the music portable and a lot less exclusive.
"The Lord has blessed me to take this music outside of the four walls so we can appeal to everyone," Harrison says. "I can play this music to any audience and they love it. They hear it and go, 'Wow. That's an awesome sound.' That's because they have never heard trombones playing the lead. They were used to groups of vocalists behind a sax player. So I try to go away from that and make them appreciate the music of the trombones, sousaphones, euphoniums, all the things that give you that different sound."