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Barry Harris: Setting The Standard On Standards

Dan Bilawsky By

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The Barry Harris Trio
Iridium
New York, NY
February 4, 2010

Barry Harris has been a major force in jazz and jazz education for well over half a century. Now in his 80s, Harris seems to have lost none of his charm, wit, knowledge and skill, as he clearly held the crowd in the palm of his hand during his stay at the Iridium—just north of Times Square in Manhattan. This 75-minute set emphasized well-known songs from yesteryear, and many of the pieces began with gorgeous, rubato solo introductions from Harris.
The show began with two pieces that Frank Sinatra recorded on his Point of No Return album (Capitol Records, 1961). Harris' playing introduced "There Will Never Be Another You," and the trio jumped in with a mid-tempo swing groove. Drummer Leroy Williams started off with some brushwork and moved to sticks when bassist Ray Drummond started to lay down a walking line. Drummond's bass solo was rich and bubbly here, and Harris and Williams traded eights for a while near the tail end of the song. "I'll Remember April" began with some impressionistic piano licks built into Harris' introduction. After a brief vocal exchange between Harris and Drummond to set the right feel for the song, Williams kicked into a Latin-tinged groove, and the trio was off and running.
"Body and Soul" began with some Thelonious Monk-ish runs from the piano, and despite Williams' brushwork being a bit too firm and stiff, this song highlighted Harris' mastery on ballads. Williams provided some tasteful and tasty drum fills on "A Night In Tunisia," and Harris added some sixteenth-note runs that briefly served as connective tissue before the solos began. Harris provided some thunderous, two-handed block chords at one point, and the trio really locked in well together on this one.
An oh-so-gentle piano meditation gave way to a hilarious conversation between Harris and Drummond as a bit of Duke Ellington entered the program. Harris segued from his song for Ellington, "To Duke With Love," to Ellington's own "Prelude To A Kiss." Drummond's arco work on this tune, and in a few brief moments during other pieces, added some rich textures to the music, and Williams proved to be a sensitive accompanist here. During this performance, a woman at a front table began to wordlessly hum along, and what began as a distraction, became a charming part of this number. As the evening went on, it was clear that this table of women were somehow associated with Harris. In fact, the majority of the audience seemed to be friends, students and intimate associates, which helped to make this show more like a friendly gathering around a piano. Harris put on his educator hat as he asked several people to give him "a number between one and eight." After three people provided him with seven, three and five, Harris created an easy, appealing melody with these three scale degrees and had the audience singing along in no time. He joked about the fact that this "works in every country," and then he spoke about the need to play music that an audience knows. This elongated discussion lead to seemingly impromptu takes on "Besame Mucho," which Harris said he performs in Spain, and Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely."

Harris, along with Hank Jones and a select few others, lives, breaths and simply plays the history of jazz piano in every performance. This set proved that he still has a lot to give, and one can only hope that he'll be here to perform and teach for many years to come.

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