June 2007

Barry Harris Trio + Howard Johnson
Art of Jazz Celebrations
June 3, 2007 Pure Spirits Stage The Distillery District Toronto
Bebop Gods
by Paul J. Youngman with photos by Mike Colyer
The Barry Harris Trio is one of the finest performing in the tradition of the great piano trios of the bebop era. The trio included long time band mate Leroy Williams and Toronto resident and master bassist Don Thompson. Barry Harris and Don Thompson each received a Lifetime Achievement award at last year’s Art of Jazz Celebrations. The Barry Harris tribute concert from last year was recorded by CBC radio. It was a once in a lifetime performance by an incredible band, including drummer Williams and bassist Earl May. The concert featured guest pianist Hank Jones and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson; I urge anyone reading this to contact CBC radio and request the release of this incredible concert recording.

Dr. Harris had his own people recording this show, as is his way, being the self-described oldest living teacher of jazz; he included the audience in the performance, having us sing the chorus of one of his songs, made up on the spot by picking numbers from the audience. The song was entitled “Toronto 625”. The audience also provided percussion by way of handclaps during “Nascimento”. Dr. Harris explained, “Listen here, if I make a record from this performance I just want to let you know you’re not going to get one cent. I just want to treat you the same way as the record companies treat us.”

Starting out playing a beautiful melodic introduction on “Star Eyes” the band joined in with Leroy Williams accenting the high points and swinging on the melody while Don Thompson carried the bottom end and complemented the harmony. Dr. Harris is all about the melody along with exceptional phrasing, he has an impeccable feel, coming in with the perfect note at the perfect spot.

Leroy Williams is the best drummer for Barry Harris, he knows his every move, he anticipates where Harris is directing the song and he is always there, even one step ahead. I asked Dr. Harris how it is that Leroy Williams is always in the pocket and so supportive, his reply, “That’s because we’ve been together for over thirty years. One time I was asked to play a duet show, I couldn’t find a bass player, so Leroy and I played that show, piano and drums — it’s one of the best shows we ever did.” When I spoke with Leroy Williams about this gig, he agreed, “That was at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village, they had duets there and it was usually a bass player and a piano player. Barry called me up and told me we were going to play it, it was great, we had a great time.”

Howard Johnson joined the trio for the second set; the schedule indicated the performance would be by Barry Harris and the Art of Jazz All Stars. It remained the trio as described above with Howard Johnson as the featured guest. Johnson performed on two songs, a ballad and Mingus’ “Well You Needn’t.” When Howard Johnson plays tuba it sounds like a myriad of instruments all combined, not muddled, each with a distinct voice, I hear trombone, trumpet and even saxophone. I have heard excellent musicians comment that what Johnson does on tuba is not supposed to be possible. The range of sound he achieves, from the highs of a piccolo to the lowest sounds of this lowest-sounding western musical instrument is astounding. When I commented to Mr. Johnson about him sounding like trombones and trumpets, he replied, “Listen my friend, when I play the tuba it sounds the way a tuba should sound.” Tuba players pay attention, no more um-pa-pa. For a taste of incredible tuba playing check out Johnson’s group Howard Johnson & Gravity and the album of the same name released in 1996 on the Verve label. Johnson is a multi-instrumentalist, playing reeds and cornet, for his guest appearance with Barry Harris he only played tuba and his solos were inspirational.

Barry Harris

Leroy Williams
The musicians
Barry Harris — piano
Don Thompson — bass
Leroy Williams — drums
Howard Johnson — tuba
We welcome your comments and feedback
Paul J. Youngman
• • • • • •
Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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