For multi-instrumentalist Greg Harris, diversity is fundamental in creating stirring jazz
When Greg Harris went into the studio for Glass Gold, his newest record, he literally did not know what was going to be on the album. As in, hadn't even written the songs yet.
"Somehow, a bunch of the tracks on that album, they were all completely free, in the context of us relating to each other in the moment," he says, leaning back in a large leather chair in his home. "So it's like, those weren't composed at all. We didn't know where we were going to go next."
For an album that sounds, at times, almost Rush-like in its structures — tight but sprawling tunes that hit changes with the precision of meticulous rehearsal — that's damn impressive. And while the Greg Harris Vibe Quintet's contemporary and sometimes poppy jazz falls squarely under the heading of the genre (which certainly implies some degree of improvisation), it's still almost mind-boggling to understand that many of those changes were, in fact, not rehearsed at all.
Then again, you might say (if you were going to wax philosophical about it) that Greg Harris's rehearsal is his life. Both on the album and in his pursuits, Harris seems to balance his dedication to his craft with a faith in wherever it takes him.
Just seeing his house, in which musical instruments line the walls and occupy nearly every available square foot of floor space, you could conclude that Harris's existence revolves around music. And that conclusion becomes about as evident as a punch in the face when Harris does something like announce that he's been "really into frame drums," and then abruptly leaves the room, returning a few beats later with a stack of about five of them — examples of the earliest drums known to exist.
He picks one up and taps out a beat. "This one," he says, "is an Irish bodhran, but I'm using a technique from Azerbaijan, like a Middle Eastern finger-snapping technique."
That type of tradition-blending has perhaps become Harris's trademark as a musician. "I like to learn about as many traditions as I can, and then make an amalgamation into my own thing, my own voice," he says. "And I mean, living in 2010, with globalization, how can you just be into one thing?
"I would love to if I could," he goes on, joking. "I'd probably be a lot more successful. I guess, just, diversity is the key."
And so it seems for Harris, who got his start playing guitar. "I was big into punk rock when I was a kid," he recalls. "Then I kind of got into jazz through funky music, like soul music. But I really liked drumming, too. I played the snare drum in sixth grade or something. And then I just got real psyched on ethnic percussion."
That happened while Harris was doing his undergrad at Fort Lewis College in Durango, where he graduated with degrees in music performance and music education. Harris, who speaks with the laid-back demeanor of dudes who ride boards, tells a story about his younger self that is somehow not hard to believe: "I just kind of went down there and snowboarded a lot. I hardly ever went to school."
That changed, "like three years into it," he remembers. "I got real motivated and just started playing marimba and vibraphone, everything from snare drum and timpani, Afro-Cuban drumming. I was really into Afro-Cuban and Haitian and Caribbean music.
"For a long time," he adds, "I always wanted to go there."
Harris has yet to do that, but while he was doing his master's in percussion at the University of Colorado, a similar opportunity presented itself when one of his professors asked him to chaperone undergrads on a trip to Ghana to study music through culture.
"It changed my life," he declares. "It was so deep and rich and powerful. I took all these different classes, and I drummed, and I danced every day. It was bananas. I once danced for, I think, nine hours straight."
Which is a lot of dancing, perhaps, but not necessarily life-altering. Nevertheless, Harris says there was more to it than just getting down. "I had a time where I actually broke down. I couldn't control my emotions," he relates. "I was out in front of one of the most prominent slave castles — it was for like 400 years or something — and there were all these like little kids dressed as, like, weird clowns, begging for money...and I was in this procession of chiefs from all the different tribes, and I just got overwhelmed with these emotions I couldn't control."
Besides having emotional epiphanies in Ghana, Harris studied an instrument called the gyil, a type of West African xylophone, under masters of the instrument: Aaron Bebe Sukura, the late Kakraba Lodi, and S.K. Kakraba, the former's son. "It's kind of a weird thing, the way they have last names and first names," he jokes. "I also brought Aaron Bebe over here to tour a few times."
He also brought back mastery in a dizzying array of percussive instruments, a skill he applies to both the degrees he earned. Aside from his various music projects, he teaches — most notably, at an Aurora all-girls treatment center for teens who are "real troubled," he points out, "like, serious psychological problems."
In general, Harris says teaching is just another way to reach people through music. "For about six years or so, we did this thing where I'd bring middle-school children," he explains. "We'd bus them over to the old folks' home and do, like, a music improvisation thing. I'd bring just a ton of instruments, pass them out and get the old folks jamming with the young kids. It's just amazing, to see how, if you give kids a chance to give respect to older folks, they really do, you know, do it. They just get sidetracked sometimes.
"Or something," he adds, laughing. "I don't know."
When he's not tending to what he affectionately refers to as his "day job," Harris produces hip-hop for Isis and his own trio the Heights, or he's making contemporary dance music for ELGY Productions, or he's working with dance choreographers. And when's he's not doing that, he's playing vibraphone in Future Jazz Project, 9th + Lincoln Orchestra and Pete Warnick's Flexigrass — a gig that twice afforded him the opportunity to meet bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.
Harris is well aware of the seemingly inherent incongruity of vibes in a bluegrass band: "It's kind of weird," he allows. "Some people call it 'jazz-grass' or 'y'all-ternative.' It's really fun, man. Just learning songs by ear and being able to play and sing.
"And also blazing fast tempos," he goes on. "So that kind of keeps my chops going. You know, whatever chops I do have."
Harris is clearly being modest. On the new record, he and his quintet (which actually has about ten members) display a wellspring of chops. And the songs — jazz odysseys that bear the influence of everything from Tom Waits to Charlie Parker to Radiohead — sparkle with the sheen of virtuosity.
All the same, every track on the album, which Harris says was recorded live in the studio, was heavily improvised. "I didn't even use any music at all in the recordings," he reveals. "I don't like to look at music when I'm playing with my friends.
"I think the way of writing that we do, it just kind of takes into account that anyone can do anything anytime, and we'll go there with them," he says, and reconsiders. "Or, I guess you could also choose to not go with them. Anything that you want to add at any time is fine. If you want to go pro-what we're doing, that's cool. If you want to go anti-what we're doing, that's cool, too.
Ultimately, Harris says that's what it's about: Doing your own thing within the context of collaboration, or what he calls "the delicate balance between being independent and living with people. Which seems to be kind of a crazy thing in humanity these days. I guess it probably always has been and always will be, depending on how long we're here." He thinks for a moment, then backpedals: "Maybe that's a little too esoteric or something."
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