Inside Cirque Du Soleil's Michael Jackson Tribute with St. Louis Trumpeter Keyon Harrold


Michael Jackson: Still filling arenas. - COURTESY OF CIRQUE DU SOLIEL
  • Courtesy of Cirque Du Soliel
  • Michael Jackson: Still filling arenas.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold has spent much of his professional life in the relatively laid-back atmosphere of jazz clubs and recording studios. But when the St. Louis native performs in his hometown this week, he'll be in the middle of a circus - literally. That's because Harrold is part of the live band for "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," the tribute to the late singer produced by Cirque du Soleil that's playing the Scottrade Center (1401 Clark Avenue, 314-241-1888) on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sure, Harrold has been part of major tours before, as a musician-for-hire backing up prominent R&B and hip-hop stars such as Maxwell, Jay-Z, and Erykah Badu. But with a cast of 65 performers, including twelve musicians, and 38 semi-trucks filled with lighting and sound gear, video projection and special effects equipment, staging and scenery, the "Immortal" tour is another level of "big" entirely. "It's just massive," says Harrold. "It's one of those incredibly big productions that Cirque is known for."

Harrold was hired for the show last year by musical director Greg Phillinganes, the veteran keyboardist whose extensive list of credits includes work with Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Quincy Jones as well as Jackson himself, for whom he served as musical director for tours supporting the albums Bad and Dangerous. "I had met him one time before, during the Grammys or the BET awards. He saw me playing with Maxwell, called around and reached out to me, and asked me did I want to join the circus," says Harrold, who immediately signed on. "Working with Michael was the next thing I wanted to do, but unfortunately, he passed away. So this was like a no-brainer."

After a month of music-only rehearsals, "we rehearsed for three months with the dancers and choreographers. Cirque usually does a minimum of eight months of rehearsal. We did it in like five, which is crazy," says Harrold.

The song list for the show includes more than 30 of Jackson's tunes, with new arrangements built around digital playback of his original vocals and locked to a click track to ensure consistent timing to go with all the lighting cues, video projections and other visual elements. "Kevin Antunes (keyboardist and former musical director for New Kids On The Block, Mark Wahlberg, Britney Spears, Nsync and Justin Timberlake) is the guy who mashed up all the arrangements," says Harrold. "He had total access to all of the masters." Hearing Jackson's famous vocal tracks isolated and in close detail proved revealing for the musicians, he says. "Fortunately, we got a chance to really hear some of that stuff broken down, to hear Michael's inflections and all the stuff he had going on under his leads." Meanwhile, the inclusion of musicians who worked with Jackson, such as Phillinganes and drummer Jonathan Moffett, who played with him for 30 years, has helped keep the sound authentic. "You know you're getting the right stuff coming from the music director," says Harrold. "You're getting a direct lineage, which makes a huge difference."

During the show, Harrold and the rest of the band are on a platform suspended high above the back of the stage. "They call it 'the barbecue deck,' he explains with a chuckle, because "that's where the party is." However, since "Immortal" is much more akin to a highly structured Broadway show than a spontaneous jazz concert, the musicians' solo spots are brief. "Certain people get a chance to burn just a little bit," says Harrold. "I get just a taste on 'Human Nature,'" (incidentally, a song also once recorded by another trumpeter from St. Louis: Miles Davis).

Despite their impressive collective credits, the band members are fine with keeping the attention on the show's subject, Harrold said. "This whole production is about Michael, and everybody here knows that. Everybody has the discipline to appreciate what that is - they're cats who know what it is to focus, and respect the music for what it is, classic music that's still totally living."