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Jerome Harris: Guitar and Bass Doubler

Jerome Harris: Guitar and Bass Doubler
George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

Jerome Harris is a highly underrated musician. He's proficient doubler on bass and guitar; he's been a regular on the former with Jack DeJohnette and the latter with Sonny Rollins. Add to that he's got a wonderful singing voice, and has also recorded 4 albums as a leader. Harris initially went to Harvard with the intent of being a psychiatrist, but ended up being swayed by the call of professional music. He's a native and resident of Brooklyn, N.Y. When we toured Europe last year with Mr. DeJohnette, I had the opportunity to sit down with Harris to pick his brain a bit about music.

George Colligan: How do you approach playing bass with Jack DeJohnette, if you had to explain it to somebody?

Jerome Harris: [laughs]

GC: Because I don't think it's conventional—I don't think it's avant- garde necessarily, but I don't think it's conventional—is it something that you could explain to somebody, or do you just use your instincts?

JH: I can certainly explain it to an extent. I am fairly conscious, there is certainly some instinct and unconscious stuff going on too, obviously. I'll preface it with this... there was a period, some years ago, when I had run into Jack and we had done a little bit of playing with Sonny Rollins and he has a thing for trying to find out what some newer people on the scene are up to, so he would call folks and have them come up to his place and play. And he did that with me for a while, maybe like once a year, and it would be with different musicians each time. It took me some years to feel like... I mean, every time I would go up there, I would leave and say, "Man, I'm the saddest motherfucker on the planet, I don't know what the hell I'm doing, I'm mad, I can't play with this cat!" [laughs] I realized, partially consciously and partially unconsciously, how to listen better to him. How to hear into what he's doing a bit. And one thing was—you know how some drummers play in easily countable phrases and everything is kind of squared off and some people are even kind of gymnastic with that? There like, okay, this is going to be a four, and this is going to be a six, and everything is obvious like that. And there are other people, like Elvin Jones, who do that to an extent but also are playing feel and shapes and phrases that are not so squared off and so obvious. And sometimes it might be more like a feeling, like they might play some fill that has nine in the time of four or something, but they're not necessarily counting it to be metronomically precise, they're just kind of feeling this gesture, but it's all in the time. Jack does that a lot. So I had to relax and keep my counting going but relax my relationship to it. I also had to learn to really trust that he was playing it where he wanted it and that 90% of the time it was actually metronomically correct in terms of the meter, but on a micro level it might be more free [sic]. So, I noticed that I was originally really holding the ONE TWO THREE FOUR, really holding onto that, and he would play something that didn't feel like it was so easily countable in that way and I would get scared and then I would stop counting, and I wouldn't trust that he wasn't going to come in on one, but he would, but I wouldn't be there! Being aware of the metric frame or grid but knowing that there's some degree of play, of looseness, in how Jack interprets that and how he manifests it. And thinking about that and noticing that and trying that stuff consciously allowed me to get more of a sense of "Oh I kind of feel what he's doing, hear what he's doing," and so it made it much easier for me to play with him. And that realization came over time, some time of feeling like "Oh I'm not making it, what the hell am I doing," and really thinking about what I was doing. And there was some unconscious process of learning to hear someone, learning to feel what they're doing. And that's with everyone—soloists, rhythm section. So I had to go through a certain amount of that too, and I'm so thankful that Jack heard something in me enough that he would furnish opportunities for me to play with him, to learn that stuff, to go through that experience.

GC: I was noticing last night, the tune we play called "Miles," it's a funk tune, but the way that it ends up being played is not in a way like Parliament Funkadelic where there's one thing happening over and over and it's pure repetition. There is a decided lack of repetition yet there is this running theme and a groove, but it's more like the groove of bebop where there's this continuous conversation and continuous change, it's shifting over time. How do you think about that as a bassist? If you had to explain that to a student? Don't play the same thing all the time, but still groove. What advice would you give?

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