The last of the forefathers of Detroit jazz piano has gone on to join his honorary brothers Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Sir Roland Hanna as an ancestor. No one can question that he was one of the greatest bebop pianists who ever lived (a case could be made that he was THE greatest, but I don’t want to get in any fights here) and nobody has done more to keep the pianistic flames of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk alight. Even if he hadn’t been much of a player, his legacy would be secure from his pioneering work as one of the most influential of all jazz educators – I could go on for pages about that, but will leave it to the many who studied with him more formally and extensively. I didn’t know him well, but my one cherished opportunity to have lunch with him back in 1997 confirmed what I have heard from everyone who knew him, that he was a class act through and through. Put all of this together and you get one heck of a high-impact life.
My Barry Harris “playlist” is many hours long and many albums deep, so the narrowing-down here is somewhat arbitrary, and it omits some truly wonderful albums by the maestro himself as well as classics by Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Warne Marsh, Terry Gibbs, Benny Golson, and especially fellow Detroiters Donald Byrd, Thad Jones, and Billy Mitchell. Hopefully you will enjoy this music, whether you are a dedicated admirer of Prof. Harris already or whether you’re wondering why all the jazz musicians on social media are talking about this guy.
1 ) “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by Frank Rosolino from The Trombone Album (Various Artists) (1952)
This may seem like a joke, but I wanted to represent early-career Barry Harris, while Charlie Parker still walked the earth. This song is taken at a burning fast tempo, and while Barry (like most other young pianists of the era) still wears his Bud Powell influence on his sleeve, his fire and fluency are already remarkable at age 22.
2 ) “SRO” from Breakin’ It Up (1958)
From Barry’s first full album as a bandleader, we hear his swinging elegance and his fully authentic voice as a bebop composer already in full bloom. Accompanying him here are drummer Frank Gant (who subsequently became a member of my personal favorite incarnation of Ahmad Jamal’s trio) and bassist William Austin, who at the time were working together in the ensemble of another one of the superlative Detroit musicians, Yusef Lateef.
3 ) “Jeannine” from Them Dirty Blues by Cannonball Adderley (1960)
A few months prior to this Duke Pearson composition being given a noteworthy treatment by Detroiters Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams, Barry recorded it with Cannonball Adderley’s quintet. For a pianist so associated with bebop (which, according to certain visions of jazz history, is less hard-grooving than the hard bop that followed), it is striking to hear just how nasty Barry’s pocket is here both as an accompanist and a soloist. Of course, this is the guy who played piano on Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder a few years later, so folks shouldn’t be too surprised.
4 ) “’Round Midnight” from Chasin’ the Bird (1962)
There needed to be a ballad on this list and there needed to be a composition by his mentor and close friend Thelonious Monk, so this gorgeous performance (one of many Barry recorded of this song) is doing double-duty. It’s worth noting that it would be pretty easy to make a top 10 list of either of these two things separately – that is, the list of Barry’s lovely, tender, and harmonically rich interpretations of ballads is long, as is the list of performances of tunes either composed by Monk or composed by Barry or others to pay tribute to him and his style.
5 ) “Luminescence” from Live! (reissued as Live at the Five Spot) by Charles McPherson (1966)
As many important Detroit musicians as I had to omit from this short list, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave out the great alto saxophonist and Charlie Parker acolyte Charles McPherson. Buoyed by fierce drumming by Billy Higgins, Barry, Charles, and trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer (perhaps best known for his important work with Charles Mingus) all burn on this song (a contrafact on the chords to “How High the Moon”) a few months before it was recorded as the title track of Barry’s own album.
6 ) “Symphonic Blues Suite: Third Movement: Blues (Twelve Measure Form) Variational Interlude” from Suite 16 by Yusef Lateef (1970)
I needed to include Yusef Lateef in here regardless (and would have had plenty to choose from even just from his Eastern Sounds and Into Something albums), but this track is quite remarkable. Starting with some swinging blues from Yusef, it morphs into a piano feature that begins sounding downright avant-garde before morphing further into a demonstration of just how convincingly Barry played the blues.
7 ) “Casbah” from Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron (1975)
In a just world, ordinary folks would have dinnertime conversations about all the important work that Barry Harris did as a leader and sideman on Don Schlitten’s Xanadu Records in the 1970s. As it is, at least some of that music has become available digitally in recent years, particularly this trio session with Gene Taylor on bass and longtime Barry Harris Trio mainstay Leroy Williams on drums. This record is on my short list of records I assign to students wanting to learn authentic jazz vocabulary, and with virtual unanimity they report back how much they love it. I could have picked any tune on the album, and chose this one based on the simple formula that it’s the longest and more length = more choruses of Barry = a good thing.
8 ) “Cherokee” from Live at Maybeck Recital Hall (1990)
I needed a solo piano performance in here somewhere. This was the one I studied most when I was young and it has the further benefit of demonstrating his rubato (free-time) balladry in the form of an intro before we hear him lean in and offer a seemingly endless trove of up-tempo, flowing bop vocabulary.
9 ) “Nascimento” from Live at “DUG” (1995)
The last two tracks are indicative of Barry’s charisma and capacity for connection with an audience. This Latin tune was a signature of his live shows for years – he presents it here with a Japanese rhythm section and we get to hear the collective joy as he gets the Tokyo audience clapping in sync with the tune’s hip rhythms.
10 ) “7-4-3” from Live in New York (2002)
This track comes from a live album (one of the last sessions of any kind released on Reservoir Records) recorded at Birdland in New York. Barry’s formula of spontaneously creating and then teaching a song created from numbers selected by the audience would be cute if it were just a party trick. Quite the contrary, though, it demonstrates his ingenuity in helping audiences understand the “math” of jazz music even as they also lose themselves in the soul and rhythm of the music. Barry is accompanied here by Leroy Williams again, as well as Paul West, Charles Davis, and Roni Ben-Hur.