Artists - Harris Simon
"The feeling of playing with all those different drums and shakers just lifted me up in the air"
Harris Simon, the keyboard maestro who gave us the Jazz-Fusion epics, "Romance Of Death" and "North Station", as well as the exquisite "Wind Chant"
and "Factory", talks to Seymour Nurse at The Bottom End about the inspiration behind his legendary albums, "New York Connection" and "Swish."
Seymour Nurse: When did you first start to develop an interest in playing Jazz, and who were your inspirations?
Harris Simon: I was a blues fanatic as a 15 year old playing boogie woogie piano, blues harmonica and slide guitar. My inspiration on piano was Otis Spann, on harmonica it was Little Walter and on slide guitar it was Robert Johnson. When I was 17 I joined a jazz group and was influenced mostly by Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver.
S.N: You made four albums with your group, "New York Connection", "Swish", "Short Conversation", and "Tuesday Night At Cary Street." The "New York Connection" and "Swish" had a huge impact on the English "Jazz-Fusion Dance Movement" in the early 80s. Were you aware that your tracks were being played to kids in these Jazz clubs?
H.S: I had no idea. I hadn't really thought of the music as dance music although I felt that the grooves were very strong. It was a wonderful surprise when I found out.
S.N: Your biggest tunes were, "North Station", "Romance of Death", "Wind Chant", and "Factory". These were originally recorded on the albums "Sao Paulo" by Cesar Mariano & CIA, and "Fingers" by Airto Moreira. How did you first hear about these tracks? Were you already familiar with these records before you recorded your own versions?
H.S: I was a big fan of Airto Moreira from his work with Chick Corea but I had not heard of Cesar Mariano. George Klabin had met Cesar in Brazil and suggested to me that we record some of his tunes.
S.N: What made your versions so special was that you took relatively short tracks, and 'stretched them out', creating such exciting vehicles for some incredible soloing. For me, the epic "Romance of Death" is the finest example of this. How was it working on these arrangements with Jeffrey Kaufman, Jorge Calandrelli, and George Klabin?
H.S: It was a collaborative effort. George was friends with Mike Brecker and wanted him on the album. Since he is such a monster improviser we wanted to open up the songs to allow a lot of solo space. We layered the strings and voices on after the original sessions. Jorge was very meticulous in the way he used my exact piano voicings in his arrangements. It was Jeffrey's idea to use the anvil sound on "Factory".
S.N: You formed your group at quite a young age, that featured some incredible musicians (Michael Brecker, Billy Cobham, Guilherme Franco, Portinho, Mike Richmond, Claudio Roditi, Bill Washer, John Riley, Dave Valentin, Joe Farrell, Rufus Reid, Michal Urbaniak etc...) Michael Brecker was such an exceptional talent, and his recent passing away was a huge loss to the Jazz world. What was your experience working with these great artists?
H.S: I was a bit overwhelmed at first but once we started to play it felt so great that I forgot about anything else. Michael was amazing. He could play anything you put in front of him. I remember listening to playbacks and just being unbelievably excited at what he was doing. He's probably the most dedicated musician I ever met. Claudio with his big sound played with incredible fire on his solos. Everyone put forth their best effort.
S.N: You have given us other great tunes to dance to, such as the wonderfully arranged Latin rollercoaster ride, "All Points South", "Don the Don", "Stonehenge", and "Swish." What inspired you to record so many up-tempo tracks for the "New York Connection" album?
H.S: There are a couple of ballads on the albums and some medium tempo tunes but you're right. I guess I was young and I just liked songs with a lot of energy.
S.N: The "North Station" was such a big track on the dance floors of our jazz clubs. The voices of "Vocal Jazz Incorporated", and the strong Afro-Brazilian rhythms gave your music such a special flavour.
H.S: It was a great opportunity to take advantage of being in the studio by adding a lot of layers to the music. I think it was Jeffrey's idea to add the voices. Most of the gigs I was doing were with small groups. It was exciting to add all that percussion and the strings and synth sounds.
S.N: The "Wind Chant" is an incredibly beautiful song, that has touched so many people in such a deep way. What can you remember about recording this gem?
H.S: I think "Wind Chant" is my favorite song from those sessions. Michael's solo is structured so perfectly. We recorded live with a large percussion group that Guilherme Franco put together. The feeling of playing with all those different drums and shakers just lifted me up in the air.
I think the idea of having the percussionists vocalize the sounds of their instruments was very effective. The piece has a lot of variety but the sections flow into each other very smoothly.
S.N: Your albums also produced some delightful ballads such as, "Midday Dreams", "City Lights", and "Loufiana", which have the most exquisite string arrangements. The tracks, "Feel like Flying" and "New York Connection" are very soulful. This showed another side to your music.
H.S: "Loufiana" was dedicated to my brother Lou and his wife Fia and their daughter Anna. That was the first string arrangement I ever wrote. I thought Joe Farrell's solo on the song was very beautiful. Jorge's string introduction to "Midday Dreams" is a composition unto itself. I had done some gigs with Gail Wynters where we performed jazz standards. The producers wanted a lot of different styles on the album so it was fun to get to do a more pop oriented song like "Feel Like Flying" with her.
S.N: You are currently performing with your Jazz Trio. What kind of material are you working on, and can we look forward to hearing a new album from you?
H.S: I keep myself busy with performing and teaching. My last album was mostly original material so I'm thinking about doing an album of standards that I love to play. I've been working a lot on my harmonica playing and will probably feature myself playing that instrument more than I have in the past.
S.N: Harris, thank you so much. It has been a real privilege to finally have an insight into the music that touched and inspired us in such a special way.
H.S: All the best to you and my fans in England.
Copyright 2014 © Seymour Nurse