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Lafayette Harris Jr.
Lafayette Harris Jr.

Meet Lafayette Harris Jr., a jazz pianist and composer whose musical roots run deep, infusing his artistry with a profound richness and passion. Raised amidst the vibrant jazz scene of Baltimore, MD, Lafayette’s journey into the world of music began early on, nurtured by the soulful melodies that echoed through the streets. Over the years, Lafayette’s exceptional talent and unwavering dedication have earned him a reputation as the “go-to” pianist for musicians and band leaders seeking unmatched brilliance.

Currently, Lafayette mesmerizes audiences worldwide with his enchanting performances alongside iconic figures like Houston Person and Archie Shepp. Not content with solely sharing the stage, he steps into the spotlight as a bandleader and composer, leading his bands with remarkable finesse and showcasing his unique musical vision. A testament to his boundless expertise, Lafayette’s illustrious career includes touring with the late music pioneer Max Roach and gracing the stage with the esteemed Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra. Moreover, he had the privilege of recording and touring with the late, four-time Grammy nominee, Ms. Ernestine Anderson, etching his name into the very heart of the jazz landscape.

In an exclusive conversation, we had the pleasure of catching up with Lafayette Harris Jr., delving into his illustrious career, his latest projects, and his much-anticipated concert at Zinc on Tuesday, September 12.

Charles Carlini: Your musical journey has been enriched by collaborations with numerous legendary artists. Could you share some memorable experiences from touring with Max Roach and performing with the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra?

Lafayette Harris Jr.: Max Roach and I shared several journeys together, but one that truly stands out in my memory was when we performed at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy. Surprisingly, Chick Corea opened for us, which was quite an experience. I had the privilege of doing arrangements for the string Quartet and also playing piano behind Miss Ronnell Bey, which made the event even more special. It was a challenging task, and I found myself making corrections right up to the rehearsal and sound check on the day of the performance. However, everything came together wonderfully, and it gave me the confidence to see how I could effectively apply my music education in a valuable working situation alongside one of the greatest musicians of all time.

During my time with the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra, I filled in for the amazing pianist Tommy James. I have to admit that I wasn’t as skilled as him in the chair, and I had to put in extra effort to learn some of those great introductions he effortlessly played. While I knew some classics like “Take the A Train” and the intro to “Satin Doll,” the pianist’s role in that chair mainly revolves around these introductions, as much of the work is done by the orchestra. Additionally, there are a few piano solos that you must have thoroughly practiced rather than just improvising.

Overall, it was a great learning experience, and I cherished every moment of it.

CC: As a sought-after pianist, you’ve performed with Houston Person, Archie Shepp, and Ms. Ernestine Anderson, among others. How do these collaborations influence your approach to music, and what do you find most inspiring about working with such iconic figures?

LH: Collaborating as a sideman with different artists brings out various aspects of your playing because each artist has unique needs and preferences.

For instance, when working with singers, such as Ernestine Anderson, I realized the importance of focusing on the melody. Ms. Ernestine, being a blues-based singer, required a bluesy approach rather than sophisticated introductions and arrangements. Our record together, “Love Makes The Changes,” released in 2003, turned out to be a success, earning 4 stars on All Music. It was a significant milestone for me, as it marked my first recording with a prominent singer. This experience motivated me to explore more collaborations with artists of her caliber, like Houston Person.

Houston Person, who eventually replaced Frank Wess as the sax player for Ernestine, had a profound impact on my playing and compositions. His influence encouraged me to infuse more of my down-home blues feeling into my music.

On the other hand, when I played and recorded with Archie Shepp, a different inspiration emerged. He pushed me to think more freely and take more musical chances while accompanying and soloing. As a result, my sound and style on Houston’s gigs sound distinct from my approach when playing with Archie.

These varied experiences with different artists have enriched my musical journey and shaped me into a more versatile and adaptable musician.

CC: Your ability to lead and compose for your own bands is remarkable. Can you tell us about your creative process when crafting original compositions, and how you bring your unique vision to life?

LH: From my early high school days, I’ve been immersed in composing, often hearing melodies in my head and then adding chords to them. My journey involved practicing chords regularly, honing my skills while playing popular songs both in school bands and beyond.

When it comes to jazz, my playing style draws from various influences, including the Gospel feeling, R&B approach, and, at times,  a funk groove. I even incorporated a funk riff in my first record on the standard “Dearly Beloved.”

In more recent times, I’ve been inspired by the teachings of Barry Harris, who emphasizes scales and chord arpeggios, as well as the sophistication of Charlie Parker. These influences have played a crucial role in elevating my compositional ideas. I often apply Harris’ teachings while practicing soloing on a standard, and before I know it, I’ve created a new piece based on the chords of that standard. These “compositions” are not easy to improvise on the spot; they require forethought and thorough practice.

It’s a continuous process of growth, and I find that composing and improvising feed off each other, pushing me to new heights in my musical expression. The journey may have its humorous moments too, as I chuckle about the need for forethought and fore-practice in the creative process.

CC: We are eagerly anticipating your upcoming shows at Zinc next month on Tuesday, September 12. Are there any particular pieces or themes that you’re excited to perform for the audience?

LH: In the upcoming show, I plan to include a few tracks from my last CD, including the title track “Swingin’ Up In Harlem,” which happens to be one of my original tunes. However, the spotlight will mainly be on my new recording featuring the talented Plaxico Brothers: Lonnie on bass and Douglas on drums. We’re excited to present fresh arrangements of well-known funk and R&B classics like “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by The Delfonics, “Can’t Hide Love” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and “Golden Lady” by Stevie Wonder. Alongside these, we’ll also showcase several jazz classics, including “Dearly Beloved.” It’s going to be an incredible mix of timeless favorites and exciting new renditions.

CC: Jazz has a rich history of evolution and innovation. How do you balance honoring the traditions of the genre while also pushing its boundaries and keeping your music fresh and relevant?

LH: Absolutely, I find myself heavily rooted in the tradition of jazz, acknowledging its significance in carrying the genre forward. While composing, I often incorporate the timeless Swing feel, which I truly cherish. But at times, I also enjoy breaking away from it and exploring different rhythmic elements and vibes. It’s fascinating how within the same composition or arrangement of a standard, I can venture into diverse musical territories.

LH: Lately, I’ve been inspired to create a piece that combines the infectious stride of Fats Waller with the smooth lines characteristic of Barry Harris. This new composition I’ve titled “Your Feet’s Too Ashy” carries the essence of those influences while showcasing my own creative touch. Embracing the tradition and infusing it with fresh elements has been an exciting journey for me.

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Thank you, Lafayette Harris Jr., for sharing your extraordinary journey and insights with us. Your contributions to jazz have been nothing short of inspiring, and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to witness your artistry at Zinc on Tuesday, September 12. For our readers, remember to mark your calendars and experience Lafayette’s enthralling performances. 

For more information about Lafayette Harris Jr. and to explore his impressive discography, be sure to visit his website at http://www.lafayetteharrisjr.com. Jazz enthusiasts, this is an event you won’t want to miss!

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