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Barry Harris: For the Moment

Harris is a fine pianist and plays well here; this is a good album. Having said that let me state that I have problems with his elevation to icon by some jazz fans and musicians, and question whether his influence as a teacher and pianist has been an unmixed blessing.

For many years Harris has been a preservationist. Born in 1929, he played bop as a Detroit teenager, and like many other young pianists of that time became, in his words, “a member of the Bud Powell school.” However, when he began recording in New York in the mid ’50s, Harris had evolved away from Bud to a degree. His thoughtful, sensitive work had something in common with Hank Jones’ and Tommy Flanagan’s, men who owed something to early boppers Powell and Al Haig, but had developed their own take on them, emphasizing rhythmic smoothness and song-like lines. Check out Harris’ lovely playing with Thad Jones on a1956 Blue Note album for an example of his playing in this vein.

In the early ’60s, though, Harris evolved backward-his playing became more like Powell’s again and he spearheaded a bop revival movement involving musicians including Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer. Many fans, including those who can’t understand whatever avant garde movement is going on at the time, eat this up; they love guys who “have respect for tradition.” On top of this, Harris’ obvious passion for bop, his refusal to compromise, and his introduction of younger musicians to the mysteries of bop gained him support, although he did not evolve creatively as many of his Detroit contemporaries did. Hank Jones, now 80, is a more modern stylist than Harris, with a much broader musical view.

As stated above, Harris plays well on this CD, cut in 1984, on which he is backed by drummer Leroy Williams and bassist Rufus Reid. Barry contributes some fine originals to the date as well. If you think this is Harris at his best, though, listen to his exquisite solo on Thad Jones’ “Thedia.” It’s fresher than anything he plays on this CD.

Originally Published