Barry Harris Trio bring bossa and bop to Pizza Express

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Beloved Detroit-born jazz pianist and educator Barry Harris, who has worked with such luminaries as Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis, was flanked by clapping as he settled snugly onto the piano stool from which location for over 80 years he’s worked legendary bebop-shaped enchantment with his huge nimble-fingered hands, and imparted musical insights to his legions of disciples worldwide. His tastefully stirring solo piano interpretation of gorgeous ballad, ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ evolved into a dance as a beaming Dave Green on double bass locked in tight with an up-tempo walking bass line of real finesse, and Steve Brown responsively swung on brushed cymbal.

The high-spirited jazz standard, ‘I Want To Be Happy’ featured Green’s simple but striking solo of alternating octave leaps that also slotted in well beneath the melody and Harris’s insistent scat-humming. The lush spread of Harris’s chords, backed by Green’s heart-warming low notes contrasted brilliantly with Brown’s rat-tat-tat drumming during ‘‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk, and Harris’ intricate runs in double time studded with tinkling star-like, touches and an ascending chromatic break, captured some of the wit present in his close friend and major influence, Monk’s playing.

Harris was totally immersed in the music and there was rhythm in even the minutiae of his falling phrases during Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Woody 'n You’ which had a Brazilian bossa nova beginning and ending, marked by Brown’s electrifying high-pitched, dry, cross stick technique. After the interval, Harris cleverly linked a diverse selection of songs, including ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ by Stevie Wonder and popular song, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, with his amusingly risqué story of Gloria and James (an elderly couple with 14 children who eventually divorced, knocked each other out, and passed away).

Up in heaven, James asked God why he’s black and white in colour. The angel Gabriel had the answer; the punchline to Harris’s joke he chucklingly refused to reveal until his next engagement here. Harris’s drive for actively involving people in the music he loves came to the fore when, after teaching the audience a charming song lyric, he invited individuals up on stage to sing it. Gingerly a man approached the stage and hunched over the mic and sang. The sold-out house cheered. Harris, however, was incredulous that people hadn’t been lining up to have a go and quipped, “Sometimes you have to come to a jazz club to have a good time, too!” Well, Dr Harris, you certainly succeeded in bringing joy and energy to the club tonight!

– Gemma Boyd

– Photo by Shan Verma