The Last Gig

I got to the Vanguard early last night because I wanted to see how it all went down.

A few years ago, I asked Barry Harris how many trio gigs he had played in New York with another drummer besides Leroy Williams since their first record, 1969’s Magnificent! He thought about it for a moment and replied, “One.”

The bass chair has been held by Ray Drummond for a couple of years now, a perfect solution. (Previous iterations of Chuck Israels and Earl May had been hotly debated by Harris fans.) So there was no surprise that there was no rehearsal and certainly no soundcheck for the group last night. Whatever Harris wants to play, everyone has done it already or can learn it quickly enough.

Around 8 PM Drummond and Williams showed up and set up onstage. A few minutes later Barry (who is turning 87 next week) was escorted down the steep Vanguard stairs. He went straight to the side of the stage, drummer’s corner: No need to relax in the kitchen. At 8:30 the lights went off and the audience quieted down. Still seated, Barry announced, unseen and off-mike, “On bass: Ray Drummond!” Applause. “On drums: Leroy Williams!” Applause. “On piano: the wonderful! the magnificent! the eloquent! the amazing! Barry Harris!” and moved to the Steinway.

“This first number is, as always, one for the ladies.” The trio’s got one really serious gait left in their pocket, which is medium slow swing. “She” moved like a sinuous lizard baking in the sun. No one alive can do it better.

The point is simply that every articulation, every note, every essential aesthetic choice, is authentic. Barry’s lines have always been vocal: these days the announce mic is right by his head the whole time, so you can hear just how singing (not to mention grunting) it all really is. And swinging! For almost 50 years Barry and Leroy have been trying to out-late each other on those upbeats. Ok, at this point it is probably slowing down a bit here and there but, damn, that is some mystical placement.

For the second number Barry said, “I want to see if I can still play fast,” and jumped into “Just One of Those Things.” He’s not really firing like he used to, but the intention of every bebop line was still utterly correct on a primeval level.

For many years I slept on Barry Harris. I liked him but it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I started realizing how heavy he really is. He’s a contentious character, a man who sees the evolution of this music since 1954 as mostly a mistake. But the other side of it is that this music only truly exists when a master is making it right in front of you.

The trio is at the club through Sunday.

UPDATE: After posting, Mark Stryker sent along this clip, which has the vibe of Barry today. Great camera angle! I just stole a voicing or two.