One of the best written sources on Barry Harris is Mark Stryker’s Jazz from Detroit, and Mark has also now given us the definitive obit at NPR: “Barry Harris, beloved jazz pianist devoted to bebop, dies at 91.”
On Twitter, Stryker curated at wonderful playlist of key Harris tracks, now reproduced (further edited) here at DTM as a more permanent record.
These 20 tracks cover 46 years, from 1950 to 1996, and strike a balance between my favorites, the best of the best in terms of performance, and those that survey the sweep of Barry’s career and associations. The order is chronological except for one wrinkle at the end.
This playlist could have been far longer than 20 tracks, but this feels right. Not everything is represented here — there’s no Barry with Dexter Gordon or Coleman Hawkins, for example, and a couple of tracks that I might have chosen were not available online. Barry made a half dozen or so recordings after 1996, and there are some lovely moments that could be here, but I’m comfortable with my choices.
Whether you’re new to Barry’s discography or a committed disciple, there’s a lot to explore here.
1. “Hopper Topper” (1950). Barry’s debut record for the New Song label out of Toledo. “Cherokee” changes with no theme. Striking confidence for a 20-year-old, especially considering he had only been introduced to modern jazz three years earlier by way of the recording of “Webb City” by Fats, Bud, and Stitt. The even attack, precise beat and jabbing left hand here remind me of Horace Silver. Meanwhile, the young Frank Foster comes directly out of Sonny Stitt.
2. “All The Things You Are” (1958). Will Austin, bass; Frank Gant, drums. Barry’s first LP as a leader, Breakin’ it Up (Argo), opens with a ballad at a patient, walking tempo. Hardly anyone calls an adult tempo like this anymore. I think on some level Barry was always playing for dancers. Improvised curtains of lovely double-time melody. It’s an all-Detroit trio, and the record was produced for Argo (the jazz subsidiary of Chess Records) in Chicago by another Detroiter, Dave Usher. Dave had earlier co-founded Dee Gee Records with Dizzy Gillespie in Detroit but by 1958 was working for the Chess Brothers in Chicago. (Barry’s contemporary Dave is still with us here in Detroit.)
3. “Lolita” (1960) from At the Jazz Workshop (Riverside). An iconic record among pianists. Cannonball’s rhythm section, including Sam Jones on bass and 22-year-old Louis Hayes on drums. The cats are tippin’. Barry’s maturity is now in full flower. The whole LP kills. The sequential melody and harmony of Barry’s “Lolita” sticks with you, and he devours the changes like a ravenous wolf. Dig the eye-popping solo break and overall fluidity, swing, and expressive phrasing in the solo.
4. “Del Sasser” (1960) with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Newport. Holy shit! Cannonball sounds great, especially on the tag, but Barry wipes everybody out with insanely long-breathed lines, almost superhuman rhythmic drive and effortless flow. This is peak Barry Harris. Even at this blazing tempo he never gets bottled up. I showed this clip to Barry last year and, while he was often self-deprecating whenever I would tell him that he sounded great on some record or some tune, this time he raised his raised his eyebrow, smiled, and nodded his head as he listened, as if to say, “not bad.”
5. “Ascension” (1961). The standout track on Barry’s first solo piano LP, Listen to Barry Harris (Riverside). I don’t think solo piano was the best medium for Barry, and he sounds a little fidgety elsewhere on the date. But this track is bebop purity at its most swinging, eloquent, and sublime. Perfect time and enunciation. Barry’s tune descends from “Parisian Thoroughfare” with an altered bridge descending mostly by whole steps. The rubato verse winks at “Tea for Two.”
6. “My Heart Stood Still” (1961). Barry and Elvin created a special vibe — they had worked together at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit in the middle ‘50s. It’s a drag they only made two LPs together: Barry’s Preminado and Yusef’s Into Something (both on Riverside). Barry delivers four heroic choruses, locking into Elvin’s triplety lope. He carries the melody in gorgeous block chords like a man sauntering down the avenue in his finest threads. The solo unfurls in snake after snake through the changes. Barry might have surprised even himself with his astonishing turnback into 2nd chorus. Dig the double-time in the second A of the 3rd , the virtuoso flow of ideas throughout the 4th, and the drapery of descending diminished chords at the end of the bridge on the out chorus.
Coda: The shitty, ill-tuned piano rankles. Would anyone expect Horowitz to record on that instrument? Of course not. Why should Barry have had to?
7. “Stay Right With It” (1962) from Chasin’ the Bird (Riverside). Bob Cranshaw, bass; Clifford Jarvis drums. The blues. Nobody swings at this ever-so-slightly bright medium tempo like Barry. He’s really TALKING on the piano, the dips and dives, the melodic curlicues, the feints and parries of rhythm and accent, the subtle rise and fall of dynamics and touch as his lines unfurl. He slaps the syncopated beat back and forth for 12 choruses w/ Jarvis’ ride cymbal and snare. The essence of the art form.
8. “The Sidewinder” (1963). Barry is too much the bebop purist to be the ideal pianist for Lee Morgan’s proto-boogaloo hit, but bassist Bob Cranshaw remembers Barry in the studio saying he was gonna play as funky as he could. The piano vamp sells the song. Also with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (a regular at Barry’s daily colloquiums back in Detroit in the ‘50s) and drummer Billy Higgins.
9. “Luminescence!” (1967). The title track from Barry’s best LP with horns and his first record for Prestige. With baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams (another former student from Detroit), tenor man Junior Cook, trombonist Slide Hampton, Cranshaw, and drummer Lenny McBrowne. Barry’s lickety-split take on “How High the Moon” changes. High spirits from everyone — Slide! — with Barry batting clean-up & hitting it out of the park. Few reconcile grit, grace, and lyricism as seamlessly as Barry does here.
10. “Symphonic Blues Suite: Third Movement” (1970). With bassist Bob Cunningham, drummer Tootie Heath, and chamber orchestra. Wild stuff from Brother Yusef Lateef’s Suite 16. The side-long “Symphonic Blues Suite” for jazz quartet and chamber orchestra remains one of Lateef’s most rewarding large-scale compositions. At 2:42 here, Barry improvises Messiaen-like fragments (!) in the balcony of the piano, the closest this lifelong bebopper came to the avant-garde. Then he brings it all back home with a soulful slow blues. Preach, Brother Barry!
11. “Ray’s Idea” (1972) from Sonny Stitt’s masterpiece Constellation, with Sam Jones and Detroit-born drummer Roy Brooks (yet another former student of Barry’s). Stitt and Barry recorded together numerous times and had great chemistry. An inspired distillation of the bebop language. This is my all-time favorite Stitt solo for its freshly conceived melodic and rhythmic contours — not a cliche in sight — and in the key of D-flat to boot. Barry’s comping gooses the action and his 32 bars ring with exuberance, swing, and truth. Who needs a zillion choruses when you can say it all in one?
12. “Renaissance” (1972). George Duvivier, bass; Leroy Williams, drums. One of Barry’s best LPs, Vicissitudes (MPS) is loaded with his intriguing original compositions, including this beguiling exercise in minor-key bebop. The interlude has a Barry-on-Bach feeling. He’s winking at Powell’s “Bud on Bach,” and perhaps also John Lewis’ baroque vibe. Then, surprise! Double-time and a deep groove from the trio, anchored by an animated drummer who worked more gigs with Barry than anyone. Coda: The first time I heard Barry live, in the summer of 1988 at a midtown Manhattan Chinese restaurant called the Fortune Garden Pavilion, the trio set up in the middle of the room. My buddy, guitarist Freddie Bryant, and I sat within inches of Williams’ ride cymbal as we ate; I felt like we were inside the band. Overpriced Midtown food never tasted so good.
13. “No Place to Hide Now” (1975). From a sweetheart LP, David Allyn’s Don’t Look Back. Piano-vocal duets with an oft-forgotten, plummy-voiced baritone. Barry’s masterful accompaniment — gorgeous harmony and voice leading — is a work of art. For all the singers who have trained at Barry’s classes over the years, there’s precious little of the maestro accompanying songbirds on record. Too bad. He was great at it.
14. “Like Someone in Love”(1976). Sam Jones, bass; Leroy Williams, drums. Barry enjoyed a productive run with producer Don Schlitten’s Xanadu label in the 1970s, taping five LPs as a leader and about 20 as a sideman. Rule of thumb: Buy any Xanadu record that includes Barry. Live in Tokyo is one of Barry’s top-tier sides. This is Bud Powell’s arrangement of “Live Someone in Love.” Super relaxed and super expressive. Barry’s varied articulation and placement of the beat—laying back, pushing ahead, riding right on it—excites the emotions. As he liked to say when teaching: Triplets rule the world!
15. “Round Midnight” (1976) from Live in Tokyo. Tremendous ballad playing, dramatic storytelling, and a surprising intro to the intro that’s a song all on its own. These eight bars, penned by Cootie Williams, originated as an interlude in the original 1944 recording of the tune by Williams’ Orchestra. Of course, Barry and Monk were close, living together at (Baroness) Nica’s house in Weehawken for a decade. Barry plays Monk compositions with the utmost respect but still delivers his own personality – a tricky balance.
16. “Oblivion” (1985). Hal Dodson, bass; Leroy Williams, drums. Look out! Bud’s flag-waver taken WAY upstairs. It’s not just the speed, but the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic integrity of Barry’s lines. God is in the details. Barry looks as relaxed as if playing a ballad.
17. “Giant Steps” (c. 1990). The YouTube videos of Barry’s workshops overseas are extraordinary windows into the mind of a master teacher. You can find his complete 14-minute-plus exegesis on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” but here is an excerpt: a chorus and a half — 39 seconds — of the most startlingly melodic playing over these changes you will ever hear. I wish Barry had recorded a full version of the song.
18. “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” (1990) from Live at Maybeck (Concord). Another upstairs tempo but with a twist: Barry opens at a moderate lope with a nutty arrangement. Dig the descending quasi-boogie figure in the left-hand that Barry copped from a tape he had of Monk practicing the tune. Barry’s spoken introduction is cut off here, but what he tells the audience is: “I have a special tape of Monk … I’m going to start it out like that and then play it fast.”
19. “Nascimento” (1996). From First Time Ever (Alfa Jazz/Evidence) George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums. One of Barry’s most alluring compositions, “Nascimento” was named not for the the famous Brazilian singer-songwriter but for a percussionist friend Barry once described as “a beautiful little cat.” The song was for many years Barry’s set closer. His diehard fans would always lead the audience participation — rhythmic handclaps during the interludes and wordless singing of the splendorous melody. It was magical. Every time.
20. “The Bird of Red & Gold” (1979). Dial BH for beauty. The title track from the best of Barry’s four solo piano recordings. It’s a celestial original ballad as radiant as a Shelley ode. Barry sings — literally — his own poetic lyric. Brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.
— Mark Stryker
Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press).
Also on DTM:
Connector in Chief: Chick Corea, 1941-1921 (by Mark Stryker)
One That Got Away: Steve Grossman, 1951-2020 (by Mark Stryker)
Interview with Mark Stryker — Part one about a career in journalism and Jazz in Detroit, part two is about saxophonists.
The Bard of Bebop: Ira Gitler (by Mark Stryker)
George Walker: Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)
Traps, the Drum Wonder: on Buddy Rich (by Mark Stryker)