Monday, February 18, 2013

Dr. Barry Harris at Jimmy Mak's: Portland Jazz Fest

Well I've been looking for a review of the Barry Harris show that opened the Portland Jazz Festival at Jimmy Mak's Friday night, and I haven't found a thing, so it looks like I'm going to have to write it myself.

Dr. Barry Harris is a jazz giant who has been performing since the '40s with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd and Charlie Parker. He is a proponent of old-school jazz, bebop. He is a pianist and teacher.

For Friday's show, he played with two other jazz greats, bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Mel Brown, both currently living in Portland.

Harris played two shows, and I went to the second one. I was somewhat bummed that the best place I could find to stand was in a tight passage to the bathrooms. Oh well. Then the bathroom door opened, and out walked Dr. Harris himself, accompanied by drummer Mel Brown. I took this quick shot as he entered the room.

Dr. Harris is 83-years-old, small in stature, and slow moving. It took some effort to make it through the crowded club to the stage. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he repeated, as the crowd parted to let him through.

He stepped up to the stage one step at a time and slowly rotated himself behind the piano, he looked frail. The crowd was quiet and his two fellow musicians watched carefully to see what he would do. It was a somewhat melancholy moment. I expected him to launch into a swinging jazz number to brighten the mood.

Instead he slowly began a sad ballad, the song of an old man, an elegy to life's final season. It was deep and sad and beautiful. Touching, and surprising, and perfect.

Then he picked it up, launched into a standard, what was it? I didn't start taking notes until later, after I realized that I wanted to remember everything he had to say between the songs.

"No lip synching here," he said during the first song break. "Sometimes mistakes are very beautiful things."

Early in the evening, we wrote a song together, and performed it together, the trio playing while the audience sang along. "Seven six four three," was composed on the spot, the numbers shouted out by the audience, then composed into a melody by Dr. Harris, who added a bridge, "five, five, five, five." Then he coached us into singing it together, and we all sang as he played and the drummer and bassist joined in. Then they improvised for a while, turned it into a real swinging number, and we closed it out together by singing along the last verse.

"See, Jazz can be fun," he said. And it was.

He lamented how Jazz was fading away, how he didn't have regular gigs anymore. "To find out who you are, you got to do regular stuff," he said. "So I take lessons." His teacher is 90 years old.

He talked about the first time he went into a jazz club, and heard the music for the first time, and felt tingles from his toes all the way up through his body. "It was orgasmic. It was the world."

He thought, "'Please, somebody, give me that feeling," but over time it became more elusive.

As a young musician, he thought, "Maybe I have to give that feeling to myself. And maybe then I can give it to you."

"Sometimes, I can make myself get a feeling like I'm about to cry. And I thought, maybe that's it. Maybe that's the way I have to do it. I can make somebody have a little tear in their eye."

He wished more kids were exposed to the music. "I feel sorry for them, they haven't been given the opportunity to dig us. And they would, because we're beautiful."

Did anyone else see that show? Wasn't it beautiful? I think my favorite part was watching how Mel Brown listened to Barry Harris.

At one point, Dr. Harris got to the heart of the matter, and introduced a song he wrote for all of us there that night. It was a love song, he loved us all, and he invited us to sing, and come along in his ship "on a trip to Paradise."

Thanks Jazz Fest for bringing Dr. Harris to Portland. His first appearance, too? What a great show.