by Ian Mann
November 01, 2016
This is a musician who is consistently honing his talent and always looking to do something a little bit different. Harris may be consistent but he is never complacent.
Remi Harris Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 30/10/2016.
The hugely talented young guitarist Remi Harris has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages from the time that I first saw him performing with his trio at the Dukes Arms pub in Presteigne back in 2010.
Originally from the small Herefordshire town of Bromyard Harris is still based locally and this fact has enabled me to witness many of his live performances in the following years and to take great pleasure in the progress that he has made. He and the trio deliver consistently entertaining, enjoyable and informative sets that always leave audiences delighted. I’ve never seen Harris play a bad gig, whether in my capacity as a reviewer or merely as a satisfied ‘punter’.
Still only twenty seven Harris has become one of the UK’s most successful jazz guitarists and an increasingly popular live attraction. He has played sell out shows at the Brecon and Cheltenham Jazz Festivals and in 2016 travelled to Canada to appear at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival. Harris’ performances at Cheltenham have led to airplay on Jamie Cullum’s Radio 2 programme and on Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC Radio 6. The summer of 2016 also saw him appearing on national radio and TV as he and his trio guested with Cullum at the latter’s BBC Promenade Concert, for Harris the culmination of a six year journey from the back-room of The Bell in Leominster to the Royal Albert Hall.
Harris began his career as lead guitarist of the rock group Mars Bonfire who built up an impressive local following and also got to support leading hard rock acts at the 700 capacity rock club the Robin 2 in Bilston, one of the Midlands’ leading rock venues. However Harris quickly became tired of the restrictions of rock music and developed an increasing fascination with the music of gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt.
Eventually Harris quit Mars Bonfire and formed his own all acoustic gypsy jazz trio. A musician of immense technical ability, he quickly mastered the new style, turned fully professional, and soon began developing a healthy following on the jazz circuit, his reputation flourishing by sheer word of mouth. Audiences at Remi Harris gigs tend to come back for more.
Harris has also worked hard at his stage craft. Under the astute guidance of Dani, his wife and manager, the mumbling, monosyllabic youth of 2010 has developed into an increasingly assured between tunes interlocutor, his stage patter now both entertaining and informative with plenty of information about the music that he performs and the instruments he plays. There’s also musical humour too, usually in the form of ‘quotes’ during solos, tonight we got everything from the “Dad’s Army Theme” to Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”.
Harris’ trio has gone through a number of personnel changes over the years with rhythm guitarist Ben Salmon and double bassist Del Strother appearing on Harris’ début recording “Live At The Hatch” (2010). Harris’ long awaited second album, “Ninick”, appeared in 2014 on the Big Bear Music label and featured the core trio ( Salmon, plus either Tom Moore or Mike Green on double bass) plus a number of guest musicians including Alan Barnes on reeds and Ben Cummins on trumpet.
In 2016 Harris released his third album “In On The 2” which appeared on his own Yardbird Arts label. Essentially a solo recording the wonders of overdubbing allowed the guitarist to play both the lead and rhythm parts himself with bassist Mike Green also making periodic contributions.
The personnel of Harris’ trio has undergone a number of changes over the years but now appears to have stabilised with the experienced Birmingham based Green on double bass and the Australian born Caley Groves on rhythm guitar.
Harris’ repertoire has also evolved over the years and his success as a Reinhardt inspired gypsy jazz guitarist has given him the confidence to re-introduce other aspects of his musical DNA into his recordings and performances. He grew up listening to electric guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and elements of pop, rock, folk, funk, world and blues have all found their way into his current set-list. This broad-minded approach has found favour with Harris’ growing army of listeners and has added even greater interest and variety to his live shows. However gypsy jazz remains at the core of Harris’ music, although even he admits that these days playing Hot Club music exclusively can become a little tiresome at times. Indeed the guitarist’s new, wide-ranging approach has helped to keep both himself and his audiences on their toes and has almost certainly helped to expand his very loyal fan base.
Tonight represented Harris’ third visit to Black Mountain Jazz following a hugely successful club event at BMJ’s former home the Kings Arms in February 2015. Later in that year the trio returned to the same venue for an equally well attended show that formed part of the annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
As I mentioned previously Remi Harris fans tend to return and BMJ promoter Mike Skilton was rewarded with the highest club night attendance of the year with the small theatre space at the Melville Centre almost sold out for this performance. Prior to the show the club had experimented with the provision of a cold supper (quiche, bread, chutneys and salad) for audience members in the Centre’s bar area. The take up for this was excellent and also proved to be a considerable success. With any profits going to support the jazz club this was a wholly successful experiment and one which will be repeated at the next event. The food itself was excellent, both plentiful and tasty.
And, of course, these were adjectives that could also be applied to the music as Harris and his colleagues opened the proceedings with their innovative arrangement of Lennon & McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” played in a broadly gypsy jazz style with Harris on acoustic guitar. Harris has always cited The Beatles as a significant primary influence on his music making and a similarly inclined arrangement of “Lady Madonna” has been performed by the trio in the past. The Beatles’ songs lend themselves particularly well to this approach and it’s a tribute to Harris’ skills that in his hands they almost sound as if they could have been written specifically with this style in mind.
“Joseph Joseph” was a hit for the Andrews Sisters as well as being a gypsy jazz staple and, like the Beatles tune, it offered Harris another chance to demonstrate his astonishing technique with its audacious chording and lightning, octave jumping runs. He’s always been an astonishing technician but this aspect of his talent is now matched by a remarkable improvisational fluency and a growing musical maturity.
From Harris’ latest album came his arrangement of the infectious “Cissy Strut”, a tune by the 1970s New Orleans funk group The Meters, a band that once included members of the Neville Brothers. This piece was notable for Groves’ chugging funk rhythms and a melodic but highly rhythmic double bass solo from the consistently excellent Green. With Harris making judicious use of a finger slide to bring a welcome additional bluesiness to the sound this was a typically tasty New Orleans musical gumbo.
Harris now chose to cool things down a little and the next piece began with a passage of solo guitar encompassing a series of crystalline notes that reminded me of a glistening shower of raindrops, an appropriate introduction to a beautiful ballad arrangement of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” - albeit one with some characteristically colourful blues and gypsy jazz embellishments.
“Pennies From Heaven” was played Hot Club style at a medium fast tempo with Green again featuring as a soloist as Harris teamed up temporarily with Groves to perform rhythmic duties.
An excellent first half concluded on a somewhat different note as Harris strapped on an electric guitar to perform the Peter Green song “Need Your Love So Bad”, a piece that has been in Harris’ repertoire for a while and which was the first electric tune to find its way into the trio’s set. Introducing the piece Harris spoke of his love of sustain, something that only truly found its way into the vocabulary of the guitar after the invention of the electric guitar pick-up. Harris demonstrated his point with a typically emotive performance of this song which also included a solo guitar passage that demonstrated the full range of the electric instrument. He even teased us with a brief snippet of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”.
The second set was to offer even greater variety as Harris returned wielding another electric guitar, this time a classic “arch top” as played by the likes of Barney Kessell and Harris favourite Wes Montgomery. Indeed the first tune of the second half was Montgomery’s “Bock Da Bock”, a tune written by Wes’ brother Buddy Montgomery, himself an accomplished pianist and vibraphonist. Mike Green also showed up particularly well here, forming the rhythmic backbone of the piece as well as featuring as a soloist.
The arch top also featured on the trio’s version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” which saw Harris demonstrating his considerable chops as he wrapped his fingers around some slippery bebop lines, all the while propelled by Groves’ crisp rhythms. In his introduction to the piece Harris emphasised bebop’s place as a rebel music, likening it to punk and grunge, comparisons that may well have been lost on some members of the audience – but not your correspondent. To be honest I found punk a bit too simplistic when it first came out and can appreciate the best of it more now than I did then. But by the time of grunge I was ready and I still retain a great affection for Nirvana, Sugar, the Pixies and others of that era.
Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” kept the music in the bebop era but the performance was very different, a delightful ballad version that emphasised the beauty of Monk’s melody and saw Harris making tasteful use of a range of effects.
Next we saw yet another electric axe as Harris took up a white Fender to romp through a version of the Freddie King blues shuffle “Hideaway”, a tune once recorded by Eric Clapton. In the context of the trio Harris plays such pieces at a modest volume, which actually gives the listener a chance to appreciate their subtleties. Most pub blues bands play them at bludgeoning volume with murky, sludgy electric bass and pummelling drums – yes, I know it’s a strange complaint from somebody who was just bigging up Nirvana.
Harris returned to the acoustic guitar for the most unusual, and probably the most challenging, item in his repertoire, “Oud Elegy”, a composition by the Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef. Having successfully figured out the technical demands of the mind boggling 39/16 time signature Harris has developed an arrangement that combines gypsy jazz with world music elements on a jaw dropping tour-de-force that has become a core part of his live performances and which was finally documented on disc on “In On The 2”.
The jazz standard “There Will Never Be Another You” was given a more conventional gypsy jazz treatment with Harris and Green exchanging ideas and solos.
Finally a frenetic version of Dorado Schmidt’s “Bossa Dorada” was notable for the exceptional time keeping of Caley Groves as he maintained a breakneck rhythm to fuel Harris’ solo. Groves is a rhythm guitar specialist, much like his predecessor Ben Salmon and that doyen of rhythm players Dave Kelbie. It’s interesting that Harris has reverted to a specialist in the second guitar chair following a period in which the trio featured Gloucestershire based guitarist Andy ‘AC’ Wood of the group Swing From Paris. In this incarnation of the band Harris and Wood would swap roles and trade solos, but this was before Harris’ collection of electric guitars became a more integral part of the trio’s performances.
Returning for a deserved encore Harris asked the audience if they wanted an up tempo tune or a ballad. The vote was overwhelmingly for the former and the trio’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” thrillingly maintained the energy levels.
As ever Harris and the trio were given a great reception by a highly enthusiastic and appreciative audience. I’ve seen Harris many times in the last few years in a variety of musical contexts and with a variety of accompanists but he has never disappointed and has always delivered in spades. No two shows have been exactly alike for this is a musician who is consistently honing his talent and always looking to do something a little bit different. Harris may be consistent but he is never complacent. As we filed out of the hall tonight one concert goer was heard to remark “that was a real education”, further evidence that these days Harris does more than merely entertain. Even I find myself learning more every time I see him.
2017 already looks set to be a busy year for Harris as his reputation continues to grow and he becomes a national, rather than regional, figure on the UK jazz scene.
Tonight was a triumph for both Harris and Trio and for Black Mountain Jazz. It’s to be hoped that those audience members present this evening will also turn out in force for the next Black Mountain Jazz event at The Melville Centre on November 27th 2016 when BMJ will host a double bill of jazz harpist Ben Creighton Griffith and bassist and composer Aidan Thorne’s excellent new band Duski who are currently touring in support of their recently released eponymous début album. For full details please visit http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus