Jerome Harris is a highly underrated musician. Just the fact that he's a proficient doubler on bass AND guitar; he's been a regular on the former with Jack DeJohnette and the latter with Sonny Rollins. Add to that he's got a wonderful singing voice, and has also recorded 4 albums as a leader. Harris initially went to Harvard with the intent of being a psychiatrist, but ended up being swayed by the call of professional music. He's a native and resident of Brooklyn, N.Y. When we toured Europe last year with Mr. DeJohnette, I had the opportunity to sit down with Harris to pick his brain a bit about music.
GC: How do you approach playing bass with Jack DeJohnette, if you had to explain it to somebody?
GC: Because I don’t think it’s conventional, I don’t think it’s avant-garde necessarily but I don’t think it’s conventional…is it something that you could explain to somebody or do you just use your instincts?
JH: I can certainly explain it to an extent… I am fairly conscious, there is certainly some instinct and unconscious stuff going on too, obviously. I’ll preface it with this… there as a period, some years ago, when I had run into Jack and we had done a little bit of playing with Sonny Rollins and he has a thing for trying to find out what some newer people on the scene are up to, so he would call folks and have them come up to his place and play. And he did that with me for a while, maybe like once a year, and it would be with different musicians each time. It took me some years to feel like… I mean, every time I would go up there, I would leave and say “man, I’m the saddest motherfucker on the planet, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I’m mad, I can’t play with this cat!” (laughs). I realized, partially consciously and partially unconsciously, how to listen better to him. How to hear into what he’s doing a bit. And one thing was…you know how some drummers play in easily countable phrases and everything is kind of squared off and some people are even kind of gymnastic with that? There like, okay, this is going to be a 4, and this is going to be a 6, and everything is obvious like that. And there are other people, like Elvin, who do that to an extent but also are playing feel and shapes and phrases that are not so squared off and so obvious. And sometimes it might be more like a feeling, like they might play some fill that has 9 in the time of 4 or something, but they’re not necessarily counting it to be metronomically precise, they’re just kind of feeling this gesture, but it’s all in the time. Jack does that a lot. So I had to relax and keep my counting going but relax my relationship to it. I also had to learn to really trust that he was playing it where he wanted it and that 90% of the time it was actually metronomically correct in terms of the meter, but on a micro level it might be more free. So I noticed that I was originally really holding the ONE TWO THREE FOUR, really holding onto that, and he would play something that didn’t feel like it was so easily countable in that way and I would get scared and then I would stop counting, and I wouldn’t trust that he wasn’t going to come in on one, but he would, but I wouldn’t be there! Being aware of the metric frame or grid but knowing that there’s some degree of play, of looseness, in how Jack interprets that and how he manifests it. And thinking about that and noticing that and trying that stuff consciously allowed me to get more of a sense of “oh I kind of feel what he’s doing, hear what he’s doing” and so it made it much easier for me to play with him. And that realization came over time, some time of feeling like “oh I’m not making it, what the hell am I doing” and really thinking about what I was doing. And there was some unconscious process of learning to hear someone, learning to feel what they’re doing. And that’s with everyone – soloists, rhythm section. So I had to go through a certain amount of that too, and I’m so thankful that Jack heard something in me enough that he would furnish opportunities for me to play with him, to learn that stuff, to go through that experience.
GC: I was noticing last night, the tune we play called “Miles”, it’s a funk tune, but the way that it ends up being played is not in a way like Parliament Funkadelic where there’s one thing happening over and over and it’s pure repetition. There is a decided lack of repetition yet there is this running theme and a groove, but it’s more like the groove of bebop where there’s this continuous conversation and continuous change, it’s shifting over time. How do you think about that as a bass player? If you had to explain that to a student? Don’t play the same thing all the time, but still groove. What advice would you give?
JH: Well I’ll tell how I think of it and things that I would say to a student grow out of how I think of this stuff. I think about a lot of stuff in continuums. So we’re talking about this kind of thing, a funk groove – maybe towards one end of the continuum you’ve got some bass figure that repeats (sings repetitive bass line) and other things are happening but it’s pretty much a static phrase that’s repeated. Towards the other end of the continuum, you could say it’s a melody, just a stream of ideas and a lot of change. I try to choose – and this, again, is partially conscious and partially unconscious – to pick where I think the music needs to be along that continuum. How much to repeat? What to repeat, and how much to not repeat? So instead of playing some figure, like a 2 bar long figure that’s repeating, maybe think in terms of like a 4 bar or 8 bar thing. That might be just enough repetition just to give a sense of the bass part supporting the groove and establishing some cycle feeling but to not be stuck in that “every bar must be the same” thing. And it could be different pitches but a similar number of notes. If I repeat it, you could hear that it’s a cycle, but it’s this 4 bar thing. And you can take that principle and say “okay, instead of the repetition being at the 1 bar level, it could be at the 2, 4, 8 bar” and you could have all kinds of variation in the elements that do repeat so you’re approach more the melody type structure of having less repetition and more new material or variation happening. And on that tune “Miles” I definitely try to find what feels good right now. I’ll play something, and if what everyone else is doing is such that I feel like it needs some anchor, then I’ll repeat something. It might be the rhythmic figure, it might be pitches, it might be register, because the bass functions differently in it’s lowest octave than it does two octaves above that. So I might drop down and play some root stuff down low, and then go back up high and then come back down – that kind of repetition can set up enough feeling of anchored-ness and rooted-ness that it feels like a groove in the way that we normally think of groove. And so that’s a lot of what I do and choosing to do some interacting, jumping into the conversation, and then throwing some gravy in the mashed potatoes – something to give some anchor to it. And it’s really how much I do the anchor thing versus the melody thing really varies from moment to moment over the course of the tune, what section of the tune. Certainly when we’re playing the melody, that’s kind of a composed thing so I reel it in there because that’s the way that section functions in the whole span of the tune, it’s a refrain. So I make that refrain feel like I refrain. Sometimes I’ll come up with some other little figure but I do keep it more typically supportive for that section because it seems like that’s part of what that section is about, is laying that signature figure down.
GC: You are known as a bassist and a guitarist, it’s a rare double. It’s almost like if you had someone who ran the 200 meters and also did the mile. It’s so different. How do you separate the two, or how do you see yourself in that sense? When you’re a bassist, do you just play the bass? How do you negotiate that?
JH: It’s funny, some of it is really easy and some of it is really hard. Even though I started on guitar before I started playing bass, playing guitar has a bunch of different challenges that I find physically daunting and part of me feels like “man, I should only be play guitar” to have a shot of doing that stuff well. And part of it is if you’re playing in different styles, different genre languages… they’re all so specific and call for really different skills if you’re going to do them at the level of people who do them professionally. I mean, just playing chords on the guitar in the way I’d like, being able to have flexibility and spontaneously and accuracy in voicings and harmonic material – I mean, that alone is like a lifetime. You know, you’ve got Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Metheny, Alan Holdsworth, it’s like, what the hell! So I do what I can. The easy part I guess is that I kind of think of it all as just music. Okay, so you’re soloing, you play single lines on the guitar, you pay single lines on the bass, there’s some physical difference of course. I play guitar with a pick mostly, bass guitar I almost never play the pick unless it’s some metal gig or something (which nobody ever calls me for that). I like the sound of fingers. So there’s physical difference, but you’re still trying to construct melodies. I think about what a pianist plays. Pianists, particularly if they have some experience playing solo, know how to comp for themselves, how to play supportive stuff in the bass register while they’re playing melody and chords, so when I’m playing bass I’m thinking about playing bass. I’m not playing the guitar, I’m not in the guitar’s register, and there’s role stuff in the ensemble that is fun to do and I enjoy doing that so I play the bass. And when I’m playing guitar, you’re doing more chordal stuff and often soloing more, although in a way the bassist is soloing all the time. So I’m doing that. And certainly they inform each other. Experience of playing with inner voicings moving, voice leading that you deal with when you’re playing a chordal instrument certainly informs how I play bass. You know, melodic thinking and such. And certainly when I’m playing guitar I like to hear and feel the bass player. Part of my ear is just kind of drawn to the low registers because I do that, I spend a lot of time doing that.