Take Five with Michael Joseph Harris


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About Michael Joseph Harris
Michael Joseph Harris began playing guitar at age 12. At 16 he won accolades as a jazz guitarist with the Downbeat Magazine award-winning Chantilly High Jazz Band. He studied with guitarist Rick Whitehead during high school and Jack Petersen at North Texas State University. Soon after, as a young guitarist in Washington, D.C., he played with popular Latin Jazz group Bossalingo. Harris moved to Baltimore in 2006 and became a father in 2008. In 2011 he produced Steps Beyond, an instrumental jazz recording of Cuban-inspired originals. A CD tour highlight was a Blues Alley concert featuring Grammy-winning pianist Arturo O'Farrill.

In 2012, he dove into the music of legendary French Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt which led to the creation of Hot Club of Baltimore. A year later, he founded Ultrafaux as a vehicle for his own contemporary gypsy jazz compositions. He has since produced four full-length recordings with the two groups, backed by Kickstarter campaigns. He also produced the popular HD concert video titled "Ultrafaux & Hot Club of Baltimore," and his original song "Latcho Dromo" was chosen for inclusion on an International compilation produced by Jon Larsen called Django Festival #9. Ultrafaux and Hot Club continue to tour successfully performing at events such as Django by the Sea, The Midwest Gypsy Swing Festival, and the Harris-led Charm City Django Jazz Festival.

Acoustic & electric guitar

Teachers and/or influences?
Rick Whitehead, my teacher in high school, influenced me a lot in terms of having a relaxed approach to improvisation and finding melodic ideas using chordal harmonies while paying attention to the tune. He really conveyed the essence of being a jazz musician for me at the time. I also have to credit the great teacher Jack Petersen. I was fortunate to study with Jack at North Texas State University. His master class generated a kind of supercharged learning for me. He had a very systematic approach to the guitar. More recently, I have gained insight into Roma Jazz technique and harmony from European masters such as Sebastien Ginaux, Olivier Kikteff, Samson Schmitt, and Tcha Limberger, all of whom I have had the pleasure to study with at a yearly camp called Django in June.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I knew I wanted to be a musician when I saw country picker Roy Clark play on TV one night when I was a kid. My mom saw my eyes light up watching him play. I couldn't stop talking about it and begged my mom for a guitar for Christmas. She rented me a Yamaha acoustic and bought me a few months of guitar lessons from the Music & Arts Center where I learned the basics from a teacher named Eric Ulrich. He was very patient and showed me the basics. I always wanted to be prepared for every lesson and I felt bad if I didn't practice. I wanted to learn fast, which I did!

Your sound and approach to music.
My approach to music is to really be present and feel the emotion of the music in every note I play. I don't see myself as a flashy player using tons of fast passages and memorized runs. I like to improvise and take risks when I play and I want every show to be unique for the audience. Guitar is an intimate instrument for me, full of subtlety and nuance, but it can also be a very powerful force. I practice scales and arpeggios just like every good player, but I really like to forget about all that when I play. I play my best when I am imagining the guitar in my mind, and not actually looking at it or staring at where to place my fingers. The exception of course is when I am playing a complex melody, like my tune "La Valse de la folie" where I almost have to look at the fretboard because there is so much jumping around in finger position.

Your teaching approach
I teach only those who really want to become players. I gave up on teaching vast amounts of students who don't really want to be there. I was so eager to learn when I started that I find it hard to relate to students who take music lessons but then don't want to do the work. How can I teach someone who has no motivation? I don't understand why so many young players have no interest in learning technique. You have to play the difficult things to get any better. I constantly perform therefore I favor students who want to be performers too.

Your dream band
I have been fortunate to meet and play with some great musicians including Cuban/Venezuelan pianist Cesar Orozco, Romani accordionist Marian Badoi, percussionist Alfredo Mojica Jr., and the Lucini brothers from Brazil, as well as top European musicians Olivier Kikteff, Tcha Limberger, and Samson Schmitt to name a few. I am very happy working with Ed Hrybyk and Sami Arefin in Ultrafaux, so my dream band would expand on that group, adding a combination of the great players I have listed above and a few I have never met, but admire like violinist Marius Apostol, who performs with Angelo Debarre, and Ludovic Beier, who I saw perform with Dorado Schmitt recently. The music would blend Cuban and African rhythms, Roma and Balkan folk, and French musette in a new way using the common thread of jazz harmony to bring it all together. Of course, I would need a horn section to pull it off. A few instantly come to mind like Joseph Brotherton on trumpet, Clarence Ward III on tenor sax, and Greg Boyer on trombone; all exciting players I've worked with before. The goal would be to tour the world with a larger group like this, performing original music, the way Duke Ellington did with his big band.

Road story: Your best or worst experience
My band Ultrafaux was on tour down south and we had a show in North Carolina. We hadn't made plans for accommodation so we were all wondering where we would sleep that night. After the show we walked around and noticed an amazing bar with gorgeous sparkling crystal everywhere, so we went in to have a drink. Our bassist Eddie started chatting with a very flamboyant man who had a long black ponytail and impeccable attire. After an exuberant conversation with Eddie, the man said we could crash at his place and we graciously accepted. I was ecstatic to have a place to sleep! We stayed to have another cocktail, but by then, Eddie had questioned his decision. I told him not to worry, the guy was just being kind to travelling musicians, but I admit it was getting weirder and weirder. We drove to his place, which he referred to as the "Village of the Ewok." After driving straight up a mountain for 10 minutes, we parked and began taking a small dark path until we saw many lights in the trees coming from a laser star generator in his garden. There on top of the mountain through the lit trees stood a YURT! We did end up getting some sleep, but not until after our host, who had quickly become shirtless, showed his skill at playing the didgeridoo!

Favorite venue
My favorite venue is The Creative Alliance at The Patterson in Baltimore. It's a 230-seat theater with proper stage, lighting and great sound. They have a stage manager, a great soundman, and a nice backstage. You feel electrified before you go on to perform for a packed house. Every seat is good and it feels like every note matters. The lighting and staging transport the audience into the world of the music, and the performers can join them in that feeling because it's not too large or impersonal.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
My favorite recording in my discography is Ultrafaux's latest CD Deuxieme. My guitar technique really took a leap forward with that disc. I have been working on a new way of picking, more like what Django Reinhardt would have used back in the day. This new approach has brought a lot of facility to my playing and I love it. I am still quite the perfectionist though and I can be the worst critic of myself, but I am finally starting to enjoy the recording process. I have always preferred playing live in front of an audience or in band practice with friends. My main challenge with recording is to get a take that shows both spirited improvisation and skillful performance of melody. The music is dense and difficult so we are really flying by the seat of our pants. It's not easy to get a "perfect" take in that setting. I really respect Django and other jazz players from the 30's and 40's who were able to do such great music in one take using one microphone! I don't use fancy overdubs or computer editing. I prefer the raw and real performance because amazing moments happen.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
I think my most important contribution musically is the fact that I am writing original music that people enjoy. I have strong opinions about jazz being a socially viable music and I believe that the music needs to be accessible to all audiences, not just jazz aficionados. I am both a traditionalist who loves the old music, and a contemporary composer, who believes originality is the key to bringing Jazz back into prominence. The jazz legends paved the way for us and we have to pay attention to their legacy. They made music that was smart and technical, but also fun and accessible to wide audiences. It was a social music and hearing it made everyone want to tap their feet and dance. Simultaneously it was a spiritual and intellectually stimulating experience for the listener.

I love the way Jazz energizes me and makes me want to move. Its both uplifting and deeply meditative. I really like the effect swing has on people and I enjoy all of the syncopation within the swing feel. I like to experiment with 6/8 rhythm, waltz, odd time signatures, polyrhythms, Latin, Balkan folk rhythms, or even just varying the intensity within the swing feel. The magic happens in rehearsal when we bounce ideas off of one another and try them out to really see what works. Of course we immediately want to share our discoveries with the audience. Bringing our music to diverse crowds is important to us. That's why we intentionally perform in rock venues, house concerts, black box theaters, and festivals, not just in jazz clubs. I want to reach audiences who have never heard of Django and who don't listen to Jazz. Of course, there is nothing better than performing for a packed house of jazz lovers! But I think it's on us as musicians to be bold and bring this music to new audiences.

Did you know...
A lot of fans may not know that I became a father in 2008. Happily, my daughter seems to be learning at a faster rate than I ever did, with lessons in harp and mandolin since age five. Now she is showing great skill at violin and guitar. Recently she improvised a solo with me playing rhythm guitar for the first time. I couldn't be prouder! I became very inspired to write new music shortly after she was born and have become so much more focused and productive because of her.

The first jazz album I bought was:
I think my first jazz record was Chuck Mangione Live at the Hollywood Bowl. My Dad and I loved playing pool together while listening to that double record set. I was totally into Led Zeppelin at the time though, and I loved Yes, both of which bordered on jazz and used some pretty skilled improvisation. My first record may have also been We Want Miles by Miles Davis. That's where I first heard Mike Stern on guitar. The whole album felt so alive and inspiring for me and my friends at the time!

Music you are listening to now
Angelo Debarre -Gypsy Unity -Le Chant du Monde
Les Doigts de l'Homme -1910 -Alma Records
Les Doigts de l'Homme -Mumbo Jumbo -Lamastrock
Django Reinhardt -Django in Rome 1949/1950 -JSP Records
Antoine Boyer -Sita -La vie qui va

Desert Island picks
Django Reinhardt -Django in Rome 1949/1950 -JSP Records
Les Doigts de l'Homme -1910 -Alma Records
Keith Jarrett -My Song -ECM Records
Paco de Lucia -Luiza -Universal Music Spain
John Coltrane -Giant Steps -Atlantic Records
Duke Ellington -Jungle Nights in Harlem -Bluebird

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
Jazz, as a category, is in a kind of strange predicament, one that as a musician I almost have to ignore to keep doing what I am doing. I see a lot mediocrity out there and it doesn't have to do with how technically good a player is. It has to do with the feeling behind the music and the originality. I try to avoid the label of jazz often because it has become something different from what it originally was back in the early days. I like the Django Reinhardt style of jazz because it brings back some of the original feeling of jazz for me as a guitarist, particularly the swing feel and the way audiences can enjoy it even though the music can be complex harmonically. In my opinion, players like Django and Charlie Christian had it right, along with many others of that era. You could hear a story they were telling harmonically and you could have a sense of melody even as they played all around the chord changes. Above all, you could feel the music like it was a alive, vibrant, and fresh.

Some modern jazz is really exciting, supercharged with electricity, but a lot of it falls flat because it just lacks that swing feel or it is too preconceived; not truly improvised. That said, we have to remember that jazz is the language that has allowed all music to grow and change in new ways. It's the most significant development in music since classical. Django was pivotal because he took American jazz music and combined it with his Romani-Manouche and French musette roots. This created a truly unique music that hinted at be-bop long before Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

I suppose in the world of jazz you have to watch out for hype. There is a lot of music out there claiming the moniker Jazz that is really not Jazz at all. However, music is an open market and folks will gravitate to what is popular. My hope is that everyone making good music will be able to get it out there to reach mass appeal. It's one thing to spend hours composing, rehearsing and playing the music. It's quite another to get out there to promote and tour. I bring up the example of Duke Ellington again. He took his original music and all of his musicians to Europe and played for audiences all over the world. He even invited Django Reinhardt in 1946 to perform with him in America to sold out shows at Carnegie Hall. Duke's achievements as a bandleader amaze me, not just in terms of his compositions, but also in terms of his leadership. His is an example we all can learn from in terms of what it takes to really play this music for a living.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
Players need to be creative about their presentation and keep the audience in mind. They also need to really appreciate those club owners and fans who are passionate about this music. Those people really make the difference. Some venues are run by folks who love music and treat musicians very well. Actively promote those places. However do not avoid other kinds of venues just because there is no jazz following. Put the music in places where it will find new ears. I think of how Snarky Puppy has reinvented how jazz can be presented and how the music can be complex and include improvisation but can also be accessible and exciting for a wide audience. Or how Coltrane and Parker played in schools and in churches at times for large audiences back in the day. It's important that jazz be performed everywhere, but especially on stages with good lighting and sound. There is an important theatrical element to Jazz and musicians should embrace the show aspect of the music. Above all musicians have to find their own style and be themselves. They need to exude everything they feel when they perform. The music does not tolerate any lacking in authenticity. The music has to be played from the heart and audiences want to experience that genuine feeling.

What is in the near future?
I am planning an album of waltzes and another Ultrafaux CD which will have elements of Balkan folk and funk. I also want to do some cool new arrangements of Piaf tunes with Alexis, the vocalist for Hot Club of Baltimore, along with a few big band arrangements paying homage to Django and Ellington.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?
My greatest fear when I perform is tripping over a cable and my guitar falling off the stage. I walk very carefully.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
Ah funeral songs...The best one for me is "Nuages" by Django Reinhardt.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?
"I'm Beginning to See the Light!"

By Day
I practice about four hours, which includes time for composing, then do marketing and booking for about the same amount of time during the day.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:
Surgeon, sculptor or woodworker because I am good with my hands and I like to fix things or make things.

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