What a joy to learn at the feet of Dr. Barry Harris, 89, one of the original bebop piano masters. I visited his regular Tuesday night workshop in Manhattan recently to interview him and join about 50 other eager students in learning how this sage approaches the art of bebop.
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Dr. Barry Harris played classic bebop piano to young fans in London on August 11. (Photo by David Friedman)
Barry Harris Trio at Pizza Express, London
London’s current, healthy jazz scene is benefiting from a new crop of exceptional local talent combined with a surge of interest on the part of younger club-goers. These younger listeners are not only going to hear millennial players – they’re also paying their respects to some of the players of the Millennium.
At least that was the conclusion I drew from the encouraging number of younger listeners present for a recent Saturday night set at Pizza Express Live-Soho by the 88-year-old bebop icon Barry Harris. In a somewhat unlikely turn of events, the Pizza Express restaurant chain has become a leading presenter of jazz in the U.K., with five venues, including this attractive cellar jazz club in the heart of Soho.
Dr. Harris (he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Northwestern University in 1995) was vastly influenced by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk (who had been a close friend of Harris). Roughly half of the material on this occasion was tunes written or played by the two piano legends. He appeared with his stalwart U.K. rhythm section, bassist Dave Green and drummer Steve Brown.
At 88, Dr. Harris may walk to the stage slowly, but continues to swing with authority, his focus and stamina at the keyboard undiminished. The youthful crowd had come to hear un-reconstructed bebop, pure from the source. Harris favored ballads and mid-tempo songs all night, but swung with increasing authority as the night progressed, with deft, highly attentive accompaniment from Green and Brown.
He began, a little haltingly, with Powell’s “Oblivion,” then found his footing. It’s not so easy to get your motor started at 88, but, once engaged, it ran smoothly, the pianist patting his heel to the mid-tempo swing and humming along with his solo, increasingly audibly as the night went on.
“Over the Rainbow” was a mildly surprising choice for a bebop pianist, but the bebop treatment proved just the tonic to enliven a song that, for all its greatness, can sound trite in a more traditional setting. What Harris initially lacked in polish – his fluency and speed markedly improved in his second set – he more than made up for in soul. Early on, he didn’t always hit every note cleanly, but his note choices were always right. On this song, and the next, George Shearing’s “She,” he played in the unhurried manner of a past master with nothing to prove, both casual and focused. He turned the packed house, in effect, into his living room, as if the audience was eavesdropping.
They hung on his every note as he wrung pathos from each phrase. I couldn’t help but think about Powell and Monk: If they had they made it to this ripe age, would they have sounded similarly reflective, surrendering some precision and flash for the wisdom of age, saying only what was necessary and respecting the silences?
All evening, bassist Green and drummer Brown kept their eyes locked on Harris, as if holding a babe in arms who might fall from their embrace if they looked away. Displaying sensitivity to his every gesture, they listened as closely as humanly possible. Brown had a smile plastered on his face the whole evening, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Three more Monk tunes followed: the waltz “Ugly Beauty,” “Off Minor” and “Light Blue.” He then offered an elegiac take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” before launching into an uptempo “Woody N’ You,” the Dizzy Gillespie warhorse, in the style of Bud Powell. Was his consistent playing behind the beat in the first set intentional or an artifact of old age? There were so many jazz lessons to be had that, in the end, it didn’t matter.
His sprightly original bossa nova, “Nascimento,” proved a palate cleanser. The tune has been covered by Tommy Flanagan and Bobby Hutcherson, among others, but it’s such a “found” melody that it’s remarkable that the tune isn’t better known. With little encouragement, an amen chorus of audience members clapped along and sang “la-las” to the ridiculously catchy melody.
Returning for his second set, Harris seemed somehow younger and more resilient. He began, appropriately enough, with “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the quintessential London ballad, playing the first chorus solo before the rhythm section joined in at a leisurely pace. Singing along with his solo, he was now locked in tight.
Continuing the sentimental mood, he revived the chestnut “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” a 1942 Irving Berlin tune that featured a melodic and inventive bass solo from Green.
“East of the Sun” followed, swinging gently at a leisurely tempo, then Monk’s famous ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” dead-on. So far in this set, he hadn’t played anything faster than mid-tempo, and proved a total master of his domain.
Calling upon a time-tested bit of show business, he then asked the audience to help him compose a song by picking three numbers from one to eight. Members offered “seven,” “four” and “five.” He considered these numbers for a moment, then announced that the next number would be entitled, “7-4-5 Pizza Express.” (He featured a different version of this tune, called “7-4-3” on his 2003 album Live in New York; only the melody notes were, ever so slightly, different.) The routine calls for the notes to be taken for a spin on a bossa nova framework that changes keys a few times before returning home. It’s all a bit of hocus-pocus requiring a willing suspension of disbelief; it’s fairly obvious that the majority of this song has been pre-composed. No matter. It’s still a delightful tune, whatever three notes the audience suggests.
More ballads followed, Harris sometimes singing a bit, as on “Everything Happens to Me,” where he intoned the poignant last verse, “I fell in love just once, and it had to be with you / Everything happens to me.” On “My Heart Stood Still,” he gently bopped his way through it, in a nod to Powell, who also recorded it.
Another ballad, then, perhaps tiring, he said, “It’s time, isn’t it? Time is so fleeting.” He wrapped it with a reprise of “Nascimento.” Once again, the audience clapped in time and sang along. Indeed, after the show, some youthful audience members walking down Dean Street could be heard whistling it.