Friday, December 24, 2021

Barry Harris - Impressions - Part 2

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For nine decades, a lonely outpost held out defiant hope for the return of the diminished chord. Jazz pianist Barry Harris, who died last week, was born in Detroit in 1929, heard the Big Band era in person, and devoted himself to a lifetime of bebop. …

Harris had discovered some of those secrets himself, like mathematicians sometimes discover new properties of numbers all of us have known since birth. There are 12 chromatic notes. Every three notes is a minor third, and after four, that brings us back to “do.” Play all four minor thirds at once, and you have a diminished chord. There are only three diminished chords, but between them they modulate smoothly to any of the twelve tonics. Diminished chords are flexible. …

Detroit jazz critic Mark Stryker, who observed him closely for a lifetime, has described Harris as the music’s “conscience.” Though Harris’s diminished chords may never return to common practice, future generations still have a chance to warm themselves with his deep wisdom—and, perhaps, keep a piece of that old-school conscience eternal.”

-Ethan Iverson writing in The Nation, 12.15.2021

“He is the Flaubert of Bop Pianists.”

- Owen McNally, The Hartford Courant

“He is the leading living exponent of the piano style established by Bud Powell. A model of musical integrity in an era of compromise and apparently incapable of delivering an indifferent performance.”

- Bob Blumenthal, Boston Phoenix

“Harris is the consummate Bebop piano player. Drenched in the Bud Powell tradition, he is nonetheless one of the most distinctively, individual keyboard artists.”

- Doug Ramsey, Radio Free Jazz

This is a second in a series of “Impressions” about pianist Barry Harris who passed away recently. For someone who was so influential for so long as a model of consistency and creativity, there are relatively few in-depth interviews and discussions about Barry and his music in the Jazz literature.

Thankfully, a number of his recordings over the years do contain informative and insightful insert notes about Barry’s style and significance, both as a player in his own trio and as a sideman on recordings by Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins and many others.

In a way, though, while many Jazz fans applauded the release of the 1975 Dameron tribute by Harris - a kind of tribute to an ultimate bebop composer by an ultimate bebop pianist - author Ted Gioia raises an interesting question about this bebop association in the following excerpt from his The History of Jazz [First Ed., 1997]:

“... Tadd Dameron was, for his part, an unlikely modern jazz player. Was Dameron a real bebopper? His compositions are often cited as model bop pieces — but many of the best known were written in the late 1930s before the new movement had crystallized. His early roots straddled musical idioms: as an arranger, he was equally comfortable working for swing bands such as Lunceford's and Basie's as he was writing for modern jazz ensembles led by Gillespie and Eckstine. Moreover, his approach to the piano had none of the telltale signs of bop: it lacked the insistent linear drive of a Bud Powell as well as the hypermodern harmonic sense of a Thelonious Monk. Instead, Dameron favored a compositional approach to the keyboard—not surprising given his overriding interest in writing.”

Perhaps the Harris-Dameron connection comes less from bebop and lies more in the lyrical and sensitive approach that both had to the music?

In any case, here are the notes from what has to be considered as an ideal treatment of the music of Tadd Dameron by Barry which, unfortunately, quietly came and went, as one of Don Schlitten’s marvelous Xanadu 1970s LPs and which has thankfully seen a reissue in recent years as one of the Zev Feldman-produced Xanadu Master Editions [2015]. 

The original sleeve notes are by Mark Gardner's and I’ve also included his recap for the Zev Feldman-produced Xanadu Master Editions CD.

You also find a number of YouTubes at the conclusion featuring tracks from Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron.

“It has been 10 years since Tadd Dameron died [1965]. His passing left voids in jazz composition and arrangement which have still not been filled. Nobody has surfaced in the Dameron tradition with the talent for melodic originality and harmonic acuteness coupled with the ability to score uniquely that Tadd possessed. Worse than this, however, is that most contemporary jazz players are either unaware or uncaring of Tadd's legacy which contains so many musical gems. The neglect of this great artist's works is scandalous. A few of his songs are still played and remembered by a minority, but many other pieces have been relegated to an unworthy limbo, awaiting rediscovery. It takes a Barry Harris to reveal again the miraculous beauty of Tadd Dameron's writing, to show us how Dameronian structures were magical vehicles for improvisation. It takes a Barry Harris with the courage, knowledge and singular ability and commitment to tackle such an assignment and bring it off with absolute sincerity and deep conviction.

Barry Plays Tadd Dameron is a dream realized. It has long been a pet project of Mr. Harris and producer Don Schlitten whose association with this master pianist dates back to 1964. In those 11 years Don has produced four Harris-led sessions and twenty one (as of this date) on which Barry was at the keyboard. They have built a lasting relationship based on trust and understanding, a rare rapport between artist and producer has been achieved.

When Mr. Schlitten founded Xanadu Records, the team entered a new and significant phase. Barry, naturally enough, became Xanadu's "house pianist" and he can already be heard enhancing three important albums: Sonny Criss' Saturday Morning, Sam Noto's Entrance! and singer David Allyn's remarkable Don’t I Look Back. Now it is Barry's own turn and time for him to pay a heartfelt tribute to bebop's finest composer.

Barry's enthusiasm for Dameron is not surprising. Like Tadd, Harris is a pianist who shares Tadd's vision of lyrical and logical art. You won't encounter an ugly phrase in any Dameron melody or arrangement; the same is true of any Harris performance. At a Harlem club called Diggs' Den, Barry once addressed some well chosen remarks to the audience "You've all! heard of Abraham Lincoln - right? Then you should also know about Tadd Dameron. If you don't, check the history books... but you won't find him there."

You won't even find Tadd Dameron in many of the so-called histories of jazz [obviously this was written over 20 years before Ted’s book]  yet he was almost as vital in the development of the music as Bird, Dizzy and Monk. Tadd was probably the pioneer in putting bebop on paper. He was certainly the first composer-arranger to adapt the language of small group bop to the big band format as you can appreciate from the charts he supplied for the Eckstine, Gillespie and Georgie Auld orchestras. By comparison with Duke Ellington, Tadd's output may seem relatively small — I would guess at no more than 50 compositions — but they are all superbly crafted pieces, mostly sparkling miniatures save for a couple of extended works (Fontainebleau, Soulphony). Dameron shaped each melody carefully and then came the task of scoring it for a large or medium-sized ensemble. Because he was so far ahead of his time Tadd was dubbed "The Prophet" by his fellow trail-blazers. He was a teacher and encourager of young stars like Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Allen Eager, Benny Golson and Clifford Brown. Barry Harris served in a similar capacity to colleagues in Detroit during the 1950s.

Harris, needless to say is a faultless interpreter of Dameron's tunes and he lends them a new dimension through his brilliant extemporizations. Not for Barry any note-for-note repeats of other men's solos a la Supersax. That route can be exciting, interesting and helpful to the young listener but it is not the path for a mature soloist of the Harris calibre. No, he offers us the first all around piano trio tribute to Tadd Dameron. How Tadd would have appreciated the gesture! Dameron never thought much of himself as a pianist (although he could and did play some very pretty solos in a personal "arranger's style") because he was limited technically. Barry is the soloist that Tadd's music deserves.

The drummer on the enclosed sides is Leroy Williams who moved from his hometown Chicago to New York in 1967. He played with the late Booker Ervin, Sonny Rollins and Clifford Jordan and has recorded with organist John Patton, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and others. He has been working with Barry on and off since 1969. "He can really syncopate. He really feels that off-beat thing," says the pianist.

Bassist Gene Taylor is a seasoned professional who was a pivot in one of Horace Silver's best bands and appeared on stirring silver collections like Finger Poppln', Blowin' The Blues Away, Horace-scope and The Tokyo Blues. Horace said of him: "Gene never has to be coaxed to really work." I'm sure Barry will echo those sentiments. Gene's preferred bass men are Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford. Two of his early inspirations were Slam Stewart and Johnny Miller of the Nat "King" Cole Trio.

Barry, Gene and Leroy work together the way a trio should ... three minds meeting and working as one exploring the infinite possibilities of each piece in close-up. Within the discipline of Dameron's compositions a freedom is afforded to the musicians. In formless music, freedom may be craved and the players might even think they have found it but they are under a delusion. Given a solid foundation the Harris Trio does not merely scratch the top-soil but penetrates the rich under-layers in Tadd's progressions. There is melodic, harmonic and rhythmic variety and cohesion here in plenty. The music pulsates with good vibrations, disclosing, among other things, that Dameron's writing is as valid today as 30 years ago and Harris' piano style is equally timeless. An honourable tradition is being carried forward. It is living and breathing music, vital and relevant in our present troubled era as it also was in the uncertain post-war years. Every age requires beauty to nourish its spirit.

Fittingly the first track, Hot House, is one of the earliest and most crucial of the bebop repertoire. It was initially recorded by Bird and Diz for Guild on May 11,1945 but, curiously, Tadd never made a record of the tune himself. Neither did he arrange it for a large orchestra so far as we know. The composition is. of course, based on the What Is This Thing Called Love? sequence. Barry plays an improvised solo lead-in to prelude the melody. He sketches three fluent choruses at a medium tempo and then enjoys some brisk conversations with Leroy and Gene.

Soultrane is a vintage 1956 Dameron original which he waxed with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane at a quartet session for Prestige. The only other version I know of was made by Chet Baker in 1964. Barry accords it a dignified, tender treatment. The melody is as memorable as that of If You Could See Me Know and it cries out for a good lyric. Barry's sensitive rendition will, hopefully, inspire somebody to fit apt verbal sentiments to the line.

The Chase, a joyous little song, is unrelated to the Dexter Gordon/ Wardell Gray speciality of the same name. Tadd premiered it at a 1947 Blue Note recording with a sextet which included Fats Navarro and Ernie Henry, it takes an AABA form and is typical of Dameron in that it is cute, unselfconscious and engaging. Following the Harris intro, the eight-bar opening of the melody and repeat, Taylor takes the bridge and Barry the reprise. Gene "walks" a beauty and Leroy's brush work is inspired. Ladybird, one of Tadd's most adhesive tunes, was cut by the composer at another Blue Note gathering, this time in 1948 when the Dameron Band, then resident at the Royal Roost, sported the tenors of Wardell Gray and Allen Eager plus the effervescent trumpet of Fats Navarro. Charlie Parker broadcasted an unusual version with a French orchestra on a visit to Paris in 1950. The piece is a jazz classic and Benny Golson used it as the basis for another original, Stablemates and Miles Davis did the same for Half Nelson. Barry relates it briskly but not brusquely. It won't make you hear a whir of wings and see red spots but this Ladybird will lift you into a fast, fluent flight down a road called Invention. The interaction between the trio is stunning.

Casbah, to quote Ira Gitler, is Tadd's "jasmine-scented, night-wind line" on Out of Nowhere changes. Composed for a Capitol date by a 10-piece Dameron ensemble and recorded in January of 1949, the original version made use of Rae Pearl's straight soprano voice and Fats Navarro's trumpet most effectively. It merits the detailed inspection that Barry Harris affords it here. This is how a solo should be developed over a steady 4/4 pulse, the life-beat of jazz. Barry's poetry in sound on piano puts me in mind of Evonne Cawley's poetry in motion on the tennis court. They share a lissome grace, an unforced ease: There's always time to play the shot and place it to perfection. Casbah is a juicy, fresh peach, full of flavour, every bite a mouth-watering delight. Barry's solo sparkles with wit - his reference to Tico Tlco, his closing quotation from Buttons and Bows, his echoing of a Taylor phrase behind the bassist in Gene's sturdy solo. These 8 1/2 minutes affirm: "We are happy - share the feeling with us!"

If You Could See Me Now has a verse (they don't write those today) but this one is actually the bridge of the tune cleverly transplanted by Barry. The song is certainly one of the most attractive ballads ever published. Dameron wrote and arranged it for Sarah Vaughan and conducted her interpretation for Musicraft in 1946. The last measures are Dizzy's coda to Groovln' High On her recording Miss Vaughan was supported by a large orchestra with strings, the silver-toned trumpet of Freddie Webster, the sonorous baritone sax of Leo Parker and the piano of Bud Powell.

The arrangement has never been surpassed. Barry approaches the song with delicacy and respect. He sounds appropriately blue as he pilots a course through the haunting changes, swinging gently in a subtle, delayed-action manner.

I can't recall hearing a single non-Dameron version of The Tadd Walk. The composer made it for Savoy in 1947 with a quintet (Fats Navarro, Ernie Henry, Curley Russell, Kenny Clarke) and often played it at the Roost because several airs hots of it exist dating from the fall of 1948. Nobody else has seen fit to revive this intricate and melodic bebop challenge until now. The Tadd Walk is a jaunty, hip strut for which a rig of suede shoes, brown chalk stripe, Mr B. collar, florid tie. bebop cap and shades would seem to be essential. Barry and company catch the mood after Harris has tapped out the theme with expert precision. The piano solo unfolds !like the dextrous flutter of a magician's kerchief. The abrupt conclusion epitomises the bop shock, the sting in the tail.

Our Delight is yet another Dameron first. It was the first side to be cut by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra at its debut session for Musicraft on June 10, 1946. Tadd did it with a sextet on September 26, 1947 and revamped the original score for his last LP (February 27. 1962). Our Delight has been exactly that for more than 29 years. It remains a remarkably durable, compressed statement of the best jazz values. The progression makes a soloist stretch, and Harris does that all right in a darting and daring statement. cheered by Gene's fast picking and Leroy's swashbuckling swishing. The combination of Tadd Dameron's music and the Barry Harris Trio is a natural. The album helps us to recall and puts out front again the peerless artistry of Tadd Dameron 10 years after his death. It also enables us to bask in the warmth of an extra special bright radiance emitted when the hands of Barry Harris establish contact with a piano keyboard.

Coincidence note: On returning from my honeymoon in the Isles of Sicily in March 1965 I picked up the Melody Maker and read with disbelief the terrible news that Tadd had died. Coming back from a holiday in those fortunate islands in 1975 I find a tape of Barry Plays Tadd awaiting. A more joyful homecoming! Thank you Tadd, and rest in peace Thank you Barry, Gene, Leroy and Don for capturing a dream. They do come true after all!”



Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron was a landmark album, being the first repertoire tribute to the composer since his death a decade earlier. It was also the first programmatic piano treatment of Dameron melodies — entirely apt since Tadd, for much of his band-leading career, directed operations from the keyboard.

No better interpreter of Dameronia could have been chosen than Barry Harris, a longstanding admirer of Dameron and an insightful performer of his works. Barry's respect for his fellow musician was reflected by the tune dedication he wrote in 1960. Barry's piece, entitled Tadd was recorded by Nat Adderley in that year. And that tribute came when Dameron was still alive and able to appreciate it.

Harris and producer Don Schlitten had been close associates and firm friends for more than 11 years when Don founded the Xanadu label. At Prestige, Don produced three outstanding Harris sessions, employing the pianist as a sideman on ten others with the likes of Charles McPherson, Carmell Jones, and Illinois Jacquet, not forgetting jazz singer Eddie Jefferson.

The relationship continued when Don produced albums for Muse and MRS, At Xanadu, Barry rapidly became unofficial house pianist. It was at Schlitten's suggestion that Barry consider an overdue celebration of Dameron's musical contribution. Great minds think alike, because Barry had been mulling over just such a project.

Don recalls giving Barry a cassette including a comprehensive bunch of Tadd's songs: "I wasn't too surprised when Barry came back with his choices which were the older, classic tunes, nearly all! of which were composed in the 1940s when Dameron was in his prime." The one exception was the beautiful "Soultrane", dating from 1956 and a remarkable meeting of minds between Tadd and saxophonist John Coltrane.

"We had a wonderful working arrangement over more than 20 years," Don remembers. "Barry knew what I wanted and I understood his objectives so there was always a congenial atmosphere at our sessions."

The presence of drummer Leroy Williams was a given. He had been Barry's preferred percussionist since 1969, and they still work together from time to time. Bassist Gene Taylor (1929-2001) was an excellent choice to complete the trio. His playing with pianists Horace Silver and Duke Pearson also fitted Harris's approach like a glove.

Before retiring to Florida in the 1990s, Gene contacted Don Schlitten to request some copies of Barry Plays Tadd to take with him. Taylor

told Schlitten; "That was the best album I was ever on." Quite a statement in light of many successes with Horace Silver.

Don, too, regards the session as among his most satisfying productions. "It's one of those dates you can listen to again and again, and it sounds great every time. Everyone was so relaxed and swinging."

In the 39 years since this recording, Barry Harris has continued to play, teach, and flourish, carrying the messages of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Tadd Dameron to younger generations. History was made on that day in 1975, and the music remains.”


Here's a video of the full album.

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