By Ricardo Burke
Pianist Kevin Harris states emphatically that his family shaped who he is. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he was surrounded by lots of great teachers in his family and his mom always had Motown on the record player: Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips.
His first instrument was the trumpet, which he picked up in the fourth grade. Harris went to Lexington Junior Middle School and Bryan Station High School. He attended Greater Liberty Baptist Church but notably did not play an instrument within that sacred space. However, the young Harris was especially cognizant of how the preacher and the music intersected.
Charles Little, Harris’ first piano teacher, came from a heavy gospel and western classical background and he pushed Kevin to read music. “He made sure my theory was strong!” Harris states unapologetically.
In high school, he was just starting to learn what jazz was, listening to recordings by Joey DeFrancesco, Marcus Roberts, and Wynton Marsalis. Harris earned his undergraduate degree in Instrumental Music Education at Morehead State University in eastern Kentucky in 1997. While there, he studied with Jay Flippin, a renowned educator who juxtaposed Charlie Parker melodies with Bach harmonies.
While working towards a Master’s degree in Jazz Piano Performance at The New England Conservatory of Music, Harris learned fundamentals and explored musical boundaries with the illustrious pianists Fred Hersch and Danilo Perez. Harris completed his graduate work in 2000 but remained in Boston afterwards. He quickly realized he needed more time to practice and play with other musicians. During this period, he learned the traditions, like how to accompany vocalists and play up-tempo.
By 2011, Harris’ focus shifted to New York City. He began hanging out at West Village clubs like Smalls, Mezzrow, The Village Vanguard, and 55 Bar, where he took note of how some of the finest pianists in the business worked out their ideas.
When queried as to the characteristics he thinks are most vital to a piano player’s success, Harris was straight to the point: knowing the repertoire of The Great American Songbook, having a great attitude, technique, and lots of practice. Around this time, Harris started to put considerable energies into writing music. “There’s a momentum that keeps on picking up with regard to composing,” he says. That momentum aided in his expansion from writing for piano-bass-drum trios to Afro-Cuban and Afro-Venezuelan compositions for larger ensembles and beyond.
Harris’ “Roots, Water, and Sunlight”, penned for octet, is a musical expression of the writings of James Baldwin. His “Griot Series” is influenced by the words and music of Woody Guthrie, Stevie Wonder, and Maya Angelou.
Kevin Harris will play solo piano for the Solar Fusion Concert Series, during which he will present his own original compositions. These will include “The Silent Majority”, a tune he describes as a “tipping of his hat to those folks who felt the need to speak out but cannot” and “Jim Crow and the Medicine Man”, which Harris regards as “a looking back at some of the painful parts of our country’s history”.
Ricardo Burke is a Brooklyn based writer and lover of jazz, cinema and art.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @RicardoBurke14