(Pizza Express, Dean Street, July 16th 2013. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
This gig was a personal pilgrimage. My first ever experience of a genuine jazz classic — or, at least one that wasn’t Kind of Blue– was the 1961 Moodsville album Eastern Sounds by Detroit tenor man Yusef Lateef, with its two marvellous, delicate love themes (from Spartacus and The Robe). The haunting and hypnotic beauty of those tunes owed a great deal to the sparse perfection of the piano playing by one Barry Harris, another stalwart of the thriving Detroit bebop scene.
That encounter led me to seek out Japanese reissues of his classic Riverside trio albums like At the Jazz Workshop (1960) and Preminado (1961), to track down rarities like his long forgotten 1975 duet album Don’t Look Back with vocalist David Allen on the Xanadu label — Barry Harris can accompany a singer as well as he does everything else in the jazz universe.
For decades Harris has remained up there in my jazz pantheon, with the likes of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. But with one crucial difference: Harris, still spry and adroit at 83, remains among us.
The pianist completed his annual London residency last night in the midst of a very un-English heat wave. The air conditioning was on full blast at Soho’s Pizza Express but it was still hot under the lights of the bandstand and Harris decided to shuck off his jacket. “Is this the shirt with the hole in it?” he wondered, as he casually played some striptease music to accompany himself.
Supported by the crack duo-chrome British team of Dave Green on bass and Steve Brown on drums, he had been playing for five nights at Pizza Express and was comfortable and pleased to be here. So was the audience. You’ve never heard a restaurant fall silent so quickly as when Harris settled at his piano and began to play. A ghostly tinkling of the keys emerged from the rapt silence before flowing and flowering into a complex skein of chords. Steve Brown was all kick drums and brushes, there was plummy strumming from Dave Green, and then suddenly we were into a beautiful, lingering rendition of Heart and Soul. After Green took a graceful solo the leader guided the tune to its conclusion. “That was an oldie but with some very strange chords,” declared Harris, demonstrating them on the piano. It made you want to hear the piece again.
Barry Harris is one of the last greats of that Detroit jazz scene – Kirk Lightsey, eight years younger than Harris, is another – and he is enjoying a fruitful autumn to his career. He played long articulate runs with a delicate interweaving counterpoint from Green and Brown. The highlight of the set was an extended exploration of Tea for Two. It began with miniaturist notes from Harris and gentle brush strokes from Steve Brown before an abstract tumble of piano chords took us down the rabbit hole into the land of modern jazz, with Dave Green’s thrumming bass underpinning the excursion. Barry Harris smiled at the keyboard. “That’s what you call giving the bass player a little workout,” he said.
Then the number segued into high speed cymbals and machine gun drumming from Brown with lightning Bud Powell runs from Harris. Dave Green was still getting a little workout. “You’ll never forget this Tea for Two,” said Harris, and he was right.
The set also featured George Shearing’s Conception, the world’s shortest version of Salt Peanuts, and a jaunty shuffling take on My Heart Stood Still which had Dave Green and Steve Brown grinning with pleasure as they played follow the leader. “This reminds me of the At The Jazz Workshop,” said my companion blissfully.
But for me the other great standout followed immediately on Tea for Two. “This is what happened when they got through with the tea,” said Barry Harris and then he began to play A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, stating the theme with great, grave beauty and purity. Steve Brown joined in with rapturous slow brushes and Dave Green played deep, warm bass. After some playful experimentation which included taking the piece at lightning tempo the trio returned to the ethereal loveliness of the melody for the ending.
There weren’t any nightingales to be heard in the hot streets of Soho after the gig, just the insistent echo of this world class music, played by a man who is one of the last of his generation but still at the top of his game.