by Ian Mann
February 24, 2015
Harris just keeps getting better and better. The ecstatic audience reaction tonight suggested that his first visit to Black Mountain Jazz is highly unlikely to be his last.
Remi Harris Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, The Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 22/02/2015.
Guitarist Remi Harris is something of a rising star and as a “local boy done good” he is a frequent presence on the live music circuit in the Welsh Borders, the West Midlands and the Cotswolds. Surprisingly tonight was Harris’ first appearance at Black Mountain Jazz but the enthusiastic audience reception suggested that it won’t be his last.
In a shameless piece of cutting and pasting (Jazz Will Eat Itself!) I’m going to reproduce my biography of Harris that introduced my review of his second album “Ninick” in January 2014, so here goes;
Hailing from Bromyard, Herefordshire guitarist Remi Harris is something of a local hero as far as the Jazzmann is concerned. I first encountered his playing in early 2010 at a well attended pub gig at the Dukes Arms in nearby Presteigne. It was immediately obvious that Harris was a prodigious talent with technique to burn. He started out as a rock guitarist with the popular local group Mars Bonfire but eventually found the format too limiting and in 2009 decided to concentrate on playing jazz.
Initially this was solely in the “gypsy jazz” style of Django Reinhardt but as Harris’ jazz career has blossomed he’s had the confidence to extend a cautious “welcome back” to his earlier pop, rock and blues influences. At twenty five Harris is now acknowledged as one of the finest gypsy jazz guitarists in the country. He’s come a long way in the last four years, giving up his job in a local music shop to become a full time professional musician. Harris has appeared at some of the country’s leading music festivals, collaborated with guitar legends John Etheridge and Gary Potter and become a regular performer at Le Quecumbar, London’s home of gypsy jazz. He’s also been extended the honour of performing at the annual summer festival held at Reinhardt’s adopted home town of Samois-sur-Seine near Paris and has a celebrity admirer in the form of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. His is a star that continues to rise.
Although he has worked in a quintet with violinist Matt Holborn and vocalist Deborah Rose Harris’ core working unit has always been his trio. Following a number of personnel changes over the years this has now stabilised as fellow guitarist Andy Wood, better known as AC, and double bassist Mike Green. With respect to previous members Ben Salmon (rhythm guitar) and bassists Del Strother and Tom Moore this is probably the strongest line up yet as Harris continues to expand his musical horizons while keeping the sound of Django Reinhardt as the trio’s musical core.
At first audience numbers at tonight’s show on a wet February evening were fairly modest but the venue filled up over the course of the evening and in the end the event was a triumph for both BMJ and the band.
It seemed only appropriate that the trio should begin with a Django Reinhardt tune as they romped through “Django’s Tiger”, a piece loosely based on the earlier “Tiger Rag”. In the earlier editions of the trio Harris used to undertake virtually all the solo work as Salmon was almost exclusively a pure rhythm guitarist in the manner of Dave Kelbie. However in Wood he has a foil as the pair share soloing and rhythmic duties. As leader Harris still gets the lion’s share of the solos but overall this is a more democratic group and the contrast in styles between the two guitarists is always interesting. Here they shared the solos with bassist Mike Green as the evening got off to a lively start.
Introduced as “another swing number” “Topsy” maintained the energy levels with the two guitarists sharing solos before engaging in a quick-fire exchange of phrases. I’ve seen Harris perform live on many occasions but each one has been subtly different and every show has contained some kind of new development, this time it was the regular use of the body of his guitar as a form of auxiliary percussion.
Harris’ flyers for yet another busy round of gigging promise “gypsy jazz, blues, swing, bebop, world music and more” and some of those elements could be heard in the trio’s interpretation of the jazz standard “There’ll Never Be Another You”. There were solos by Harris and Wood plus a feature from the excellent Green, one of the most in demand figures on the Birmingham music scene and one of the most musical bassists around. Green’s solos are melodically inventive and hugely dexterous yet he always seems to maintain that underlying pulse and sense of swing. The piece ended with a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Harris, a further reminder of his virtuoso status.
For the trio’s version of ” I Can’t Get Started” Harris put down his 1930s style acoustic and picked up a solid bodied electric to get that classic , warm “jazz guitar” sound. Now standing to play he shared the solos with Wood’s acoustic and Green’s double bass, and also entered into some fascinating interplay with his fellow guitarist.
With Harris still on electric the trio bounced through “The Man From Toledo”, a lively and highly rhythmic piece of blues boogie written by guitarist/vocalist George Benson, with solos from all three members of the group. A version of the tune featuring the baritone saxophone of guest musician Alan Barnes appears on Harris’ album “Ninick”.
Since I first saw him play Harris’ announcing style at live shows has improved immeasurably. Now a much more confident speaker he introduces virtually every tune and sometimes provides interesting snippets of information. He revealed that he and Wood were playing modern reproductions of the acoustic guitars used by Django Reinhardt and his colleagues in the 1930s, specially constructed instruments with longer strings for extra tension which were designed to make the guitars sound louder in an all acoustic environment. Although the invention of the electric guitar pick up largely rendered this type of guitar obsolete dedicated Django revivalists are often keen to reproduce the master’s authentic acoustic style.
Harris went on to inform us that the guitar, so familiar to Western music lovers, is actually descended from the oud, the lute of the Middle East and North Africa. This formed a neat link into the playing of a fiendishly difficult and complicated tune by the oud player Dhafer Youssef in the mind boggling time signature of 39/16. It’s a piece that has been in Harris’ repertoire for a while now and his playing here was little short of brilliant as he conjured an authentically percussive North African sound from his acoustic guitar. One would imagine that the piece also represents quite a challenge to Wood and Green but both tackled their parts with considerable élan.
After this even Charlie Parker’s ” Donna Lee” seemed relatively simple by comparison. This bebop classic is based on the chords of the old folk song “Indiana” and has been a popular vehicle for all kinds of jazz soloists, Jaco Pastorius used to do a stunning solo electric bass version. Tonight Harris, Wood and Green all had fun with the old warhorse, particularly Harris who squeezed a number of humorous quotes into an extended passage of solo guitar. Members of the audience could be heard chuckling out loud at snippets from the Dads Army theme and Captain Pugwash.
The set ended as it began with a Django Reinhardt tune as Harris and Wood joshed their way through the master’s “Daphne”, trading licks and solos as Green provided the swinging pulse.
Harris began the second set by playing a couple of solo pieces on electric guitar. “Have You Met Miss Jones” was played in the style of the great Joe Pass with Harris dealing with both melody and rhythm in the manner of the late American guitar virtuoso.
“Waltz For Debby” saw Harris transposing Bill Evans’ celebrated piano melody to the guitar and using both plectrum and finger picking techniques as he explored this much loved composition.
Wood and Green returned to the stage as the trio played “Bock to Bock”, a tune written by the late pianist/vibraphonist Buddy Mongomery. Still playing electric guitar Harris soloed fluently above Green’s slinking bass line and even played a few bars with his thumb in the style of Buddy’s more famous brother, the guitarist Wes Montgomery. Green also impressed with his own solo and the bassist also kept things swinging on the jazz standard “Pennies From Heaven” as Wood and Harris traded solos.
Harris moved back to acoustic guitar as the trio stormed their way through their arrangement of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”, a breathless romp that subjected the old classic to a series of mind boggling time signature changes as the trio took obvious delight in taking some pretty outrageous liberties with the piece.
A ballad version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” represented a change of pace with Harris bringing a subtle blues influence to his string bending solo.
As he had demonstrated in the first set Harris is fully prepared to look outside the usual jazz canon in his search for good tunes. Among the most popular tunes of the evening was the trio’s infectious arrangement of “Cissy Strut” by the celebrated New Orleans rock/funk band The Meters. Green took the first solo on funky acoustic bass followed by Wood and Harris on acoustic guitars. This was a superb example of Harris referencing his rock past in an acoustic jazz context.
The set ended with the Hot Club staple “Puttin’ On The Ritz” with Wood leading off the solos. He is also a member of the Cheltenham based gypsy jazz quartet Swing From Paris and he’d played a show with them at lunchtime making this his second gig of the day! Nice work AC!
The sheer virtuosity and joie de vivre of the trio’s playing ensured a rapturous reception from the BMJ audience, one of the most enthusiastic I’ve seen at the club for a long time with several members of the audience getting to their feet to express their approval.
BMJ promoter Mike Skilton had to do very little to encourage an encore and the trio sent everybody home happy with a lightly swinging version of Django Reinhardt’s “Bossa Dorada” with solos from Wood and Harris and with the leader finally concluding the evening with a solo guitar coda.
As I’ve written before Harris just keeps getting better and better. His show has moved away from its gypsy jazz roots to embrace an impressive variety of musical styles but with jazz always at its heart.
His skill and enthusiasm helps to ensure that he always connects with audiences and the ecstatic reaction tonight suggested that his first visit to Black Mountain Jazz is highly unlikely to be his last.
There’s also good news in that a third Remi Harris album is in the pipeline following “Ninick” and the earlier “Live At The Hatch”. The release date is likely to be sometime in 2016. In the meantime the trio will continue to tour extensively.
Visit http://www.remiharris.co.uk for their live schedule.
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