Greg Harris, pictured at Dazzle with Supercollider, pays more than just lip service to the notion of expanding musical boundaries. Photo from MySpace.com.
In a radio interview before his Aug. 15 show at Dazzle, composer/musician Greg Harris spoke about playing vibraphones like a banjo during a bluegrass gig the day before in Paonia, Colorado. This statement was still lodged in the brain pan, defying any explanation I could come up with, as I took my seat in front of Dazzle’s stage and waited on the band.
If you could play bluegrass with vibraphones, I thought, maybe everything I understood about music was wrong. Maybe there were undiscovered Beethoven sonatas for cello and kazoo. Or harpsichord-driven punk crews that rocked ass, who I’d completely missed out on in the safe three-chord world of my youth. I felt my underpinnings loosen at their pinnings — I had to write about what I was going to see in a few minutes, and my foundation was slipping.
In the corner of my eye I thought I saw the ghost of Roy Clark and Milt Jackson, the former suited in a tuxedo and lightly tapping mallet heads against the keys of a vibraphone, the latter in blue jean overalls pickin’ and grinnin’ on a banjo — and both of them laughing snidely at me.
A crowd of fans in their twenties and thirties greeted the quintet’s current lineup, with Harris on vibraphones and keyboards, John Stewart on saxophone, Matt Fuller playing electric guitar, J.C. Thompson on upright and electric bass and Mark Emmons behind the drum kit. Harris encourages all of the members to write, and his own compositions expand the possibilities for quintet music in ways not many have envisioned before.
Somewhere in the midst of the second song, a searing version of Radiohead’s “Packed Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” with Stewart’s solo leaping and bounding, Harris sending out dark, modal tones from the keyboard, Emmons slamming every part of his kit and Thompson running a thick bass line underneath it all, I reached two realizations: First, that Dazzle’s back room has not been rocked this loud in years; and second, that it’s not the instruments, stupid, it’s the people playing the instruments. These both seemed pretty safe assumptions, ones that I wouldn’t have to rescind anytime soon.
“Simplexity,” a Fuller composition, stayed more on the jazz side of town and gradually weaved together a contemplative mood, with sax and vibes synching up to carry the melody at the song’s beginning and end.
Harris transcribed “North Side,” an electronic composition by DJ This, That & The Other, into parts for his jazz quintet. An ethereal, haunting refrain threaded through this song that was beyond categorization, except to say that this is what the call-and-response theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” SHOULD have sounded like if aliens didn’t have such crappy taste in music and Steven Spielberg spent a little more time on his soundtracks instead of trying to make everything look all awesome.
“Red Stripe,” another Fuller composition, began with an unusual tuning from the guitarist that was followed by the whole band making a charge and then retreating in time for a soulful, balladic solo from Stewart. Harris accented the end of the song by tapping the wooden ends of the mallets against the vibe keys, producing piano-like tones. More than just having mastered their instruments, this band is rich with musical ideas.
Harris, who also talked in the radio interview about studying an African xylophone called a gyil in Ghana, collects instruments from around the world in an effort to cross as many borders as possible in his music, whether that means him taking piano lessons recently or adding glitch-hop accents with an mpc. His latest niche project involves creating electronic music to accompany the bouzouki, the Greek lute.
But again, without the ideas and will to try and stretch your music, it doesn’t matter how many (or what kind of) instruments you incorporate. Listening to a jazz set-up play a song from a rock band like Radiohead with such sonic intensity was proof enough for me that whatever he’s doing, it’s working. The Greg Harris Vibe Quintet takes its place at the forefront of young musicians who are steering jazz music toward new frontiers.
By the time I left, Harris had jumped the Drakes’ late-night set on Dazzle’s smaller stage and was banging away on the piano into the night. It’s a completely new instrument to him. But you get the idea.
Sam DeLeo is a Denver writer and Reverb contributor.