A great baritone, smooth performance and a “Gibson” guitar – that’s Allan Harris from New York, who will pay a tribute to Nat King Cole together with the Latvian Radio Big Band at Rigas Ritmi Festival on 4th of July – the headlining concert of the festival. What to expect from the concert and from the masterclasses in Riga – let Allan Harris explain himself.
Can we agree that your new musical project, that you are working on right now, praises springtime in New York?
I am doing a musical project on Bob Dylan here, which includes a bunch of concerts - at WBGO, “Smoke” (a famous jazz club in New York)… We can call it a project on springtime, why not!
Will these concerts be more jazz, or more rock?
It’s all jazz. There will be a program on my new CD, called “Black Bar Jukebox”. Then I will go to Pittsburgh on a tour in honor of Billy Strayhorn (late American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger) material with Eric Reed on piano and a quartet. And I will start to tour Europe a little bit with my new program later.
Congratulations on your new album! It pretty much catches the Harlem jazz bar atmosphere. But in Riga, you will play a Nat King Cole tribute programme with a big band.
Ah, I am so excited! It will be a great show. You can’t go wrong with Nat King Cole, you know? Everyone there will know almost every song I will be doing.
Which ones are your favorite?
Oh god! “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”… Oh, there’s so many, man! He had so many wonderful songs, it’s really hard to pick one. Let me think what I am doing with the guys – “A Blossom Fell”, “Unforgettable”, “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “I Wish You Love”, “Mona Lisa”, “Nature Boy”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. “Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue…” (sings). You know, “Pretend”. “Stardust”, “Too Young”. You know that, “They try to tell us we’re too young…” (sings again). A whole bunch of his hits!
When you are doing Nat King Cole songs, is it like singing songs that have been with you all your life. Is it like with your new programme – are trying to do your best?
That’s a good question! Those ARE the songs I grew up with since childhood. My family, my aunt – they were always playing and singing them. I just grew up listening to these songs. It is a natural thing for me to sing them ‘cause first of all – I love his voice. I love the orchestrations. He was an incredible jazz pianist, so I want my piano players to play with love when we are doing the material.
When you sing Nat’s songs – it really sounds organic; an organic way of expressing emotions for you.
Exactly – very good said. I am trying to stick close to his arrangements. But I am trying to put twists on some of the songs. Put, as you’re saying, an organic feel to them. And a nice thing about these tunes is that everybody knows them so I can take a little bit of liberties with them and not get the audience lost.
Well some jazz musicians say that it is actually hard to play standards, because everybody knows exactly the way they should sound. When you try to perform them differently, sometimes, it does not work.
That’s true. That’s why you want to have wonderful guys with you and also to stay close to the melody. And put your twist on it. I believe that you cannot go too far out. The song and the melody must be recognizable. That’s the reason why you are doing Nat King Cole. I’m gonna do a different version of “Nature Boy”, where I will stretch it out a little bit. Put a little bop and swing in it.
Take your take on “My Funky Valentine” – it is a perfect example of one’s twist on a standard.
I love that – “My Funky Valentine”! I will use that in the future. It is a good way to treat it, because that song is been done by soooooooo (exaggerates) many people. You must put a little twist on it. It is kind of boring to do it the way it’s been done thousands and thousands of times.
But still, people are doing that. You are also doing a tribute to Nat King Cole. Is it a respect to great songs, great artists or is it a safe way to express your emotions through known songs?
There’s two parts to that. One is – I love to give credit to Nat King Cole ‘cause my voice sounds like his. We have the same meter and the same temperance in our voice. And secondly, it depends on the band. I will be in Riga some days before the show. We will have fun and see where we can take a few liberties. I will also do some quartet stuff in the middle of the show. And with that I will definitely stretch out. With the bass player, the drummer and the piano player as well. We will put a little funky edge on some of the tunes.
There are a lot of great reviews about your charisma on the stage, communication with the audience. Did you learned that or does it come naturally?
A lot of that comes from feeling comfortable with the material and inviting people into your story. I mean, you cannot act too much. Because when you will act too much people can tell that you’re being false. I want people to understand that these songs that I’m singing – I am putting my heart into them. And telling them a story that they can walk away with. With a fresh idea of these tunes and still remembering me singing them. So I am trying not to act as much – but I do invite them to become part of my story when I am on stage.
You also wrote “The Survival Handbook for the Performing Vocalist”.
Yeah, I did. And I am rewriting it now. My wife, who is my manager, is also rewriting some things for me. I am updating it because I have so many things I want to add to it. The book is based on my experiences as a vocalist and cooperating with the likes of some of the greats, like Tony Bennett and people of that caliber. They taught me things that I use on stage. And I try to pass them down to younger vocalists.
What are the main points? It is easy to say to a new vocalist – let’s not be fake, let’s act naturally on stage. When you walk on the stage for a first time, you are scared!
One thing I suggest every vocalist is – if you’re going to sing a song, line the melody. Make sure that the audience understands what you’re saying. It’s OK to take liberties once you do the melody, once you lay the song down. But if you’re doing a piece from the American songbook, ‘cause most jazz vocalists start out learning that, you must understand the majority of the jazz audience knows these songs. They’ve heard people singing them. Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra – they’ve heard the greats. So, don’t try to impress the audience. They want to be moved. And the way to move them is to understand the lyrics and the melody before you stretch out.
The main point is – sing it good, sing it the right way and then you can feel free to put in some improvisation.
That’s right! You must put your own touch on it but that takes a while – one must learn the best and most comfortable way to do that. Most young vocalists don’t have the vertigo to do that. I mean, they can copy, but they haven’t found their voice yet – that’s why they must constantly sing and understand what the great writers had written and try to follow their template.
You will give a masterclasses in Riga also. What will be the main points there?
I’m gonna scare them! No, I’m joking. What did I just say? Seriously, the main point will be – listen to some vocalist sing, pick him out. And you always have the two or three vocalists, young ones especially, who wanna raise their hands and show off. So, I’m gonna pick them out. I’m gonna pick out the song that they wanna sing and do a little bit of it. And I’m not gonna critic them, but I’m gonna guide them and show them some things that they need to do. And I hope that’ll get across to them. Of course, there will be a few vocalists there who think that they know everything. Which will be fun. I like that. I don’t wanna be harsh to them, I like to bring them some examples on how they can deliver a song in a way that’s gonna capture audiences.
When you teach students, you are teaching them about vocals, not the guitar, or is the guitar involved as well?
It depends. I try to show them how you can accompany yourself if you don’t have someone who can do that for you. It is important to learn about the partnership on stage also. It helps you to tell the story. If they are only ready to solo all the time on top of what you’re doing, then it’s confusion. You should have someone who understands what you are trying to say. But before you pick someone to do that – YOU have to first understand what is it you are trying to say. So the players either stay out of your way or become partners with you.
Regarding guitar – time after time you also test new “Gibson” guitars.
Oh, yeah, man! I am a “Gibson” artist and “Gibson” gives me guitars every now and then. I can pick up a guitar and take it to the performance. I have my favorites. There are a couple guitars I really like. I stay close to them, but like any guitarist or instrumentalist, you’re always looking for that next favorite instrument and you never find it.
If you want to play some other brand guitars – is that allowed under your contract?
It is. I do play other guitars as well. I love “Stratocasters”, I love “Fenders”. I love “Taylors”. I have some of those. “Gibson”, they don’t get upset, but they let me know – if you’re going to a big event and you will be on camera, please pick up a “Gibson” guitar… And I try to do that.
If you’re recording – is it also on a “Gibson” guitar?
Wellllll… It depends on the song, right? Every guitarist has their song flavor. From r’n’b to stretching out some funk - I might play that stuff on a “Fender Stratocaster”. But basically, my main act when I am doing r’n’b is on “Les Paul” (a “Gibson” guitar). But I do love the “Fender” stretch. When you’re trying to do some funk, “Fender” really is the right guitar.
Is it true that you’re next recording will be dedicated to Harlem but in a reggae style?
Well, I am still up in the air with that. I’m going to try to stay close to my roots ‘cause I grew up in that area during the late sixties and seventies. It will be an extension of “Black Bar Jukebox”, actually. I will expand that feeling a little bit. What I mean by that is I will try to do a little bit more of original material, a lot more guitar playing and put a little funk twist on it. But also stay true the roots, or as I call them – substandards, ‘cause I don’t wanna stretch too far from my jazz roots. I might put a little reggae in there, I have a couple songs that are closer to the Caribbean style of music. It won’t be all reggae, it incorporates a lot of different styles from the islands, like Trinidad and Jamaica. The music of the islands lends itself to that funky beat. I’m gonna try to not steal from it, but to borrow some patterns for my songwriting on the next album.
It is a good thing to say to a young artist – travel while you are young and play with lots of different musicians. Because, in your style, you can feel how Harlem funky/r’n’b style comes together with your Miami years, when you played a lot with Latino musicians. That all makes your style unique.
That is one of the things about playing music! Be a side man when you’re young. And get to travel – that’s really important. There are side effects to that – you become a citizen of the world, but then also you get to play with so many different people, who bring their culture to the table. And you should be a sponge. It’s nice to have jazz as a foundation because it gives you an edge. But it’s important to travel and seek out new adventures with different artists. That’s one great thing about music – there are no boundaries. No law, that says – you must play only one style. And that’s how you grow.
Talking about one more aspect of your career. You are also a publisher of music. It is one more thing what to tell to young artists - you cannot be just a musician anymore, as it was in the past. Nowadays, you better be a publisher and much more!
Yeah, the world is changing. Imagine – the great jazz guys of yesterday having access to the Internet! Before you only had the mercy of your manager and record company. And a record company did not want to share any secrets with the artist, because that’s where they money was. Now, these young artists are making their own movies, their own records, they are forming their own companies – all out of the bedroom with just “ProTools” and a “MacBook”. It’s amazing. The knowledge of the music industry is so vast. But what I’m gonna stress – you must travel still, because nothing feels more organic, feels better than sitting with someone and playing music. The computer and internet cannot do that for you.
Does your label, “Love Productions Records”, is putting out albums for new artists also?
Yeah, we did a couple. We put out the album of the Dutch artist Romy, called “Unbound”, which sounds a little like Joni Mitchell. I produced that record. It went well and she just started to make some noise. We put out some recordings that I did. For example, “Cross That River” – a bluegrass jazz thing. I started to produce more with other people, because for the past years, I was concentrated only on what I was doing. And now, my career is a little more stable. Our company can branch out a little bit and bring other people into the bar.
Is there still a need for a record company? As you said – the Internet is all over the place. You can put your music on-line and just wait for someone to buy it in Australia or Japan.
Well, that’s the gray area right now. Everyone is in a waiting state right now. The record companies, the musicians, the people, who control the Internet. It’s a state of confusion. There’s not much money being made from streaming on “Spotify” and things alike. They are trying to change that. The money now that artists are trying to gather is through grass roots, through independent means. Having a big base of fans on “Facebook” and sending out messages to them when you perform. I don’t see where it is gonna go, because there’s a big noise now surrounding this subject. How come these artists, who have millions of people streaming their music, earn pennies only? That’s where we’re at now. I think in the next three years, there will be an answer to the question what direction are we going to take.
They say that the only two outgoing lines are streaming and vinyl records. Do you also feel that there is a new age of vinyl?
I am really blown away of the resurgence or records. There’s a cool factor. Also, the quality of the sound is little more organic. You must have a good system to play it on, though. But it is just real cool to have a vinyl and I think that the youngsters are going back to that. There are some record stores popping up that just do vinyl. And a lot of artists set aside some budget to do a vinyl. But it is very expensive still.
It IS a cool factor. When you’re think about Nat King Cole record one thing is have a beer and listen to it on “Spotify”. The other is have a slow drink and listen to it on vinyl, spinning before your eyes. There is a fireplace effect – it feels like meditation even!
A great point! I hope that music journalists will never lose that ability to look at something as you listening to it. To look at the graphics, look at the liner notes and read what the artist is saying on the record’s cover while you’re listening to their creation. I hope that will not be lost ‘cause that has a lot to do with the interpretation of the music to someone, who writes about that. There is something magical in that that you don’t get with digital. Digital is just naked.
But still, concerts is the best thing. So, we will wait for you in Riga, for your live performance!
Absolutely! See you in Riga!