From Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany to a New Year’s Bash in Morocco for King Hassan, and back in the United States at many of the finest settings, composer, pianist, all-around nice guy, Lafayette Harris, Jr., has enjoyed it all, including a coaching position for youngsters in Japan. Harris was also the music director and conductor for "Cab Calloway’s Legacy of Swing Tour" in a ten-week tour of the United States.
With all that experience and stardom, Harris has earned a station in life many only aspire to achieve. Yet, he is still down to earth, relaxed, and easy to talk with. This interview features Harris’ views on his wonderful new album In The Middle Of The Night.
JazzReview: You have a wonderful album. We have a litmus test at our house. Once I’ve played an album, if I see my roomy trying to sneak off with it so he can listen to it at work, I know it’s a hit. This happened with your album.
You are known as a musician’s musician-a pianist people search for when they’re putting together a gig or an album. This album lets me know why you’re called that. You play as if the piano is part of you. Do you come from a musical family?
Lafayette Harris: I do not come from a musical family. My mother inherited a piano from her aunt, but for one reason or another, she never learned to play. So I decided to learn to play it.
Everyone in my family liked to listen to music. I grew up listening to Motown and "Knock Three Times On The Ceiling" and all that. My dad did have some jazz records-Less McCann and just music, in general.
I grew up in the Baltimore area and played with all kinds of bands while growing up down there-back in the 70s. That was the time. There was a band on every block. When we came home from school, we heard bands playing on every street corner. I guess it was that way in the 60s, too, with DooWop.
JazzReview: Exactly. It was a very dynamic time in music. You have an expansive background in music and I understand you played for King Hassan’s New Years Eve bash in Morocco.
Lafayette Harris: I was with a group with a friend of mine, Reggie Woods. He started getting gigs with these guys playing parties and so on. We got a gig with people around the world, including King Hassan. Man, they treated us royally.
JazzReview: That had to be exciting.
Lafayette Harris: It was very exciting. First of all, just going to Africa. It was my first trip there. I have some African friends and when they heard I went to Morocco, they were like "Man, that’s the place!"
JazzReview: You also performed with Melba Moore, Jennifer Holiday, Ernestine Anderson and Nell Carter, plus the legendary Max Roach. That had to be exciting and maybe a little frightening.
Lafayette Harris Growing up, I played everything from ragtime to hip-hop. With the ladies you mentioned, it took the same attitude--basically having music that’s written out and music you’re kind of use to. I played various roles from being a pianist and keyboard player, to being a music director. It was definitely exciting. All the way-top of the line artists. Those ladies made me feel very comfortable. With their extraordinary talent, they just made me feel very relaxed working with them, and Max Roach-even more so. The incredible talents among those stars did not create a sense of nervousness, instead they put me at ease.
JazzReview: That’s part of greatness. When they feel comfortable in their own skins, they are able to relax and just let you express yourself among them.
Lafayette Harris: I think that’s what it was. They were all so amazing.
JazzReview: I think you possess a sense of that within yourself. You are relaxed and easy to be around. It even comes through in your e-mails. You have an easy tone. As if you’re quite comfortable with who you are.
Lafayette Harris: I wasn’t aware it came through e-mail that way.
JazzReview: Let’s talk about your great new album, In The Middle of The Night. This is considered your first contemporary funk-fusion groove. It’s a departure from some of your other music. How did you finally get to the funk?
Lafayette Harris: I did two albums for a record label called Muse. Then I did two on my own label, called "Airmen" Records. They were all straight ahead records and included a Christmas album.
I really connected with the music I played with the funk band. We played all the pop of the day--Kool And The Gang, the Isley Brothers. It was that party atmosphere played out in the park, you know-just relaxed. Certain people, you gotta’ hit ‘em just a certain way. You can’t get off the path, know what I mean? (chuckle)
In The Middle Of The Night is like that. Actually, all my stuff is a little like that-even my straight ahead stuff. I just connected with the blues and gospel. Growing up in the 70s I grew up in the church. You know, I can go as far out as you want. But, I know when to come back home, too.
JazzReview: You really hit it with this album. You did much of the production of this one.
Lafayette Harris: Yes, I did. I basically worked all the arrangements out in my own way-in my head, or whatever. But I’ve got to give it up to my friend, Mr. Ray Naccari. I met him through as associated of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. I’d already started on the record in early 2003. I met Mr. Ray Naccari six or seven months after that and he helped me. Without him, I don’t know how I would have finished the album. He’s wonderful and he helped me get it together just right.
JazzReview: The group is tight. Every song is tight. This album gives room for each artist to stand out and do his or her own little groove thing. That makes it very varied. Each song is individual. Each song takes you some place different. There’s no down side to it. You know how some albums have one good song and you have to listen to all the others to get to the good one? Your album is not like that. All the songs on your album are hot from the beginning to the end.
Lafayette Harris I thank you for that. I’ve heard some albums that maybe there’s one or two strong songs and everything else is a derivative of those from those two strong songs. With this album I said, "Hey, I can put a little funk here, a little Latin there-this can be varied. " Of course, I tried to tie the whole thing together. There has to be a common theme running through the whole record.
JazzReview: I think you did a great job letting everybody shine. You started with the title track-quite unusual because that’s usually the strong song.
Do you consider this a crossover record-something mainstream or pop as well as jazz?
Lafayette Harris: Yes, I do, especially for me with a jazz background. Yes, I think this will appeal to many audiences.
JazzReview: Can we talk about a few of the artists on here? You have Mike Hammond doing sensual vocal for this title track as well as through out the album.
Lafayette Harris: He’s a wonderful, incredible, amazing tenor singer. He has wonderful ears and he came up with most of the background arrangements. He can just do wonderful things in the studio. We worked together with the band that went to Morocco. We’ve had a connection over the last four or five years. He has his own records out and he has a new one coming out. I’ll be working with him on his new album.
JazzReview: I’m sure it will turn out great; A great combination of talent. Let’s talk about guitarist, Mr. Ben Butler.
Lafayette Harris: Ben Butler-okay. We worked together with Jennifer Holiday for about a year or year and a half-me, Ben, Buddy Williams on drums, and Gary Hasse on bass. I just loved Ben’s playing. He’s just an excellent musician, excellent guitarist. We recorded most of the guitar work at his studio. He can play acoustic guitar and sound classical, turn around and play Gibson L-7 in the vein of George Benson or Wes Montgomery, then pick up a Fender Strat and sound like Van Halen!
JazzReview: He’s very well rounded.
Lafayette Harris He’s very well rounded! He’s from Australia.
JazzReview: I also noticed, just by chance, that you have a Darryl Hall working with you. Is that the same as the Darryl Hall from the famous Hall and Oates team?
Lafayette Harris: No, no this Darryl Hall is from Philadelphia and played bass fills on iVamonos!
JazzReview: How about Terell Stafford? He sounds very familiar. He’s hot and blows strong on the track "Saturday."
Lafayette Harris: Yeah, Terell Stafford. I use to go to Rutgers University, in New Jersey. When I was going out of school, this young guy was coming in. I had a chance to meet him one day and we just remained friends. We played together in 1992 when I did my first record. He came in and played on "Lafayette Is Here." You can find out all these things on my website, http://lafayetteharrisjr.com/. That’s where people can read about all my old records and all the different people I’ve played with. They can even buy an album there if they want one.
JazzReview: Since you mentioned that, where can someone buy your album-strictly through your site or are you making it available through other outlets?
Lafayette Harris: Two links on my web page will take you to sites for purchasing the album. One is www.CDBaby.com And one is www.northcountry.com --my distributor. It’s fairly easy to buy online.
JazzReview: All right. Thank you. That’s good information.
Lafayette Harris: Oh yeah, we were talking about Terrell Stafford. He’s a wonderful musician, a great trumpet player. When I approached him about working with me on this album, In The Middle of The Night, he was playing at the Vanguard with Kenny Barron, the man who was my teacher at Rutgers. He said, "I’ll do it. I’ll come and play, man." You can always count on Terell to come through and just blow wonderfully.
Another guy who shined is from New Orleans. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, since Katrina-this is Donald Harrison. Donald is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known. I don’t know if you know of him already? He had a group with his partner, Terrence Blanchard on Columbia. They did a bunch of great records. He’s a wonderful alto saxophone player and multi-instrumentalist, actually. Man, he just took time out of his busy schedule and just graced me with his wonderful sound on "Carmella."
He didn’t even know the song. He came to my house that morning, listened to it and just played it. We went over to the studio and he took two or three stabs at it and man, that was it!
JazzReview: He’s got it down. Did he happen to be in your area because of the hurricane?
Lafayette Harris: No, this was actually a year or two before the storm.
JazzReview: You included a track "Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby," made famous by the O’Jays back in the early 70s. Many memories go with that one. How did you choose that song?
Lafayette Harris: How did I choose that song? Hmm I eat out a lot-with my wife and I’d hear these guys play that song and thought to myself, "I can do that." "I can play that song." So, I put it on my list. I had a gig in Japan for a month in 2003. That’s when I said, let me work on this arrangement so I can play this song.
JazzReview: It is sweet, so very sweet. Did you feel it when you were playing it?
Lafayette Harris: I really felt it. I wanted to put a touch of vocals on it. So, I went again to Mike Hammond, and he did an incredible job of putting together the background vocals. Omari Fonzarelli also gave lovely support to this cut.
JazzReview: You did well. That song just makes the knees weak. You also have a nice bass solo included by Jerry Dalce on "Honeylike." He was great. It’s unusual to have an entire song featuring a bass solo. How did you manage to make this work so well?
Lafayette Harris: Well, we had a style of playing that was popular while I was growing up, made famous by people like Lewis Johnson, Marcus Miller and so that’s what you hear toward the middle of the end of that track. He came in a graced me with that. He played bass on "Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby," also.
JazzReview: With your song, iVamonos!
Lafayette Harris: It means "Let’s Go!"
JazzReview: And you did! A lot of swinging, featuring Karen Joseph as lead on flute. A flute lead is also unusual.
Lafayette Harris: I looked around a long time before I found a flautist who could really play in a Latin vein. I had to go and get her. It’s African-Cuban-Puerto Rican-just a completely different feel. She gave me exactly what I was looking for.
JazzReview: She did wonderful. You have a strong percussion by Café on timbales.
Lafayette Harris: He’s Latin American from Brazil. Just right for this album.
JazzReview: He fit this album perfectly. You also have Norman Hedman doing a Conga solo.
Lafayette Harris: Norman Hedman is from Jamaica, I believe.
JazzReview: You really had it goin’ on. No wonder that song was kickin’. Let’s talk about Alyson Williams’ creamy smooth voice, which is perfect on "The Milky Way."
Lafayette Harris: She’s one of my favorite vocalists that I’ve known. I worked with her as she did a wonderful tribute to Phyllis Hyman. I’ve known Alyson for a long time and I felt she was the perfect choice. She came in and did a wonderful job-just floored me!
JazzReview: Then, you jumped back with a swingin’ jam, iVamonos!, and doubled back again, with "The Work Song." Did you write that?
Lafayette Harris: No, actually, that’s a standard by Nat Adderly.
JazzReview: Oh, what was I thinking? Where was I?
Lafayette Harris: It’s been around so much, you just didn’t recognize it. (nice save-thank you, Mr. Harris..)
JazzReview: This entire album shows off your keyboard skills but that song really allowed you to be out front. You go all over the keyboard, cascading the notes, then bring us back to the funk. It’s awesome. How did you decide on that particular song?
Lafayette Harris: I wanted to do a song by another artist that was associated with a mixture of styles. "The Work Song" is not only jazz but, it reflects gospel. And, rhythm and blues. It was the perfect song. I played it with Buddy Williams and Gary Hasse.
JazzReview: It’s great. Now in your closing song, "A Little Feel Thing," this is a rousing tune as well. How did you choose this song for the closing?
Lafayette Harris: Back to the three of us-Gary Hasse on bass and Buddy Williams on drums, --you know, we were kind of the backbone of many of the songs and Gary had the idea that, tomorrow when we go into the studio, we’ll just play it, kind of like a jam session. Just relax and play. We went into the studio and Gary said-"just give me the key’ and we took it from there and just jammed. He was the music director for Star Search so he’s played keyboard and all that.
JazzReview: It really worked. Now that we have you with us and you’re down with the funk, will you stay with us or are you going back to other productions?
Lafayette Harris: I’m going to do funk and I’m going to keep swinging. I’ve got to do it all!
JazzReview: I love that. Are you touring or do you keep it mostly close to home?
Lafayette Harris: Mostly I keep it close to home. I tour a bit but try to stay near home. I will be doing a gig with a wonderful vocalist, Ernestine Anderson, and we’ll be at the Chicago Jazz Festival in September. I’ll also do Monterey Jazz Fest on 22 of September. And if you know someone who wants to have Lafayette Harris at their festival, you just send them my way.
JazzReview: I’d love it if you were at the Seabreeze Jazzfest in Destin, Florida. Now did we miss anyone on your album?
Lafayette Harris: I’d like to mention; Kevin Louis blew a nice solo on Athens. So did Cleave Guyton, one of the finest flute players/sax players that I know. I think we got everyone else.
JazzReview: Do you have a favorite song on this album?
Lafayette Harris: I think my favorite song is "Carmella." I love the melody and the way it goes with the chords. Then, Donald Harrison’s sound and the Latin thing laid down by the guitar. I just love it.
JazzReview: Is there anything else you would love your fans to know about you?
Lafayette Harris: I sure would. I have a wonderful family, two young sons, Javier and Elian. In addition, I am fortunate to have a marvelous wife, Maril, who has given her total support toward this project. She’s just fabulous.