As the world slowly starts to re-emerge from the global pandemic, the city that once never slept, now opens its sleepy eyes. New York has been the backdrop for many iconic moments and events. It has been a long time supporter of live music and more importantly that of jazz. For a genre that people keep saying is dead, it has endured its ups and downs, but dead surely not.
Birdland, one of the most well known jazz clubs in NYC, almost met its demise during the pandemic like so many other great venues. When all seemed hopeless a GoFundMe campaign, that broke its $250,000 goal, with $100,000 more raised from a virtual benefit concert on Jan. 24 featuring Wynton Marsalis, John Pizzarelli, Ron Carter, and more, saved the beloved jazz venue. You can still watch the benefit concert at www.savebirdland.com. The total raised now stands at about $400,000.
With hard proof that jazz is still loved, still fought for, still wanted and need, Birdland re-opened its doors this month. One of the first people to perform, was none other than, Allan Harris, who New York Times said was the best thing to see that weekend. The Brooklyn-born, Harlem-based vocalist/guitarist/bandleader/composer is a talent through and through. He was just named one of the 8 Jazz Artists Honoring Black Geniuses, an unexpected honor for Harris.
Harris recently released his latest album, Kate’s SoulFood , one of the best jazz records this year in my opinion. I had the chance to take a in-depth look into the album during one of our podcast and got to speak to Harris right before his Saturday show at Birdland.
While Harris has not stopped performing during the pandemic (he has a live stream every Tuesday) it was one of the first times playing live on a stage again. When I asked how it was to be back, Harris beamed and simply said, “Wonderfull. It’s nice to look at a real audience.” I went on to ask how it felt to be one of the first performers playing at Birdland since its re-open, he replied “First, I’m honored that I was included and second it’s Birdland, you know.”
When we talked about how he prepared for the shows, Harris said it could be daunting at times. They added a couple of performers who weren’t familiar with, Kate’s Soulfood, songs. He added Alfonso Horne, a trumpeter, who we coincidentally ended up seeing play on Sunday at Tavern on the Green. He plays there every Sunday and his band is definitely worth checking out! The pianist/ arranger for Harris, Arcoiris Sandoval, is another young performer to watch out for. Her brilliant piano styling and improv make her a star on the rise. With these talents and a three hour rehearsal for, Kate’s Soulfood , they got it down in time to play live.
After being off the stage and road for a year, Harris said, “It’s been different, you have to develop another side of yourself. You have to learn how to play in-front of a camera, so getting on the road is going to be great.” Helping with the live streaming is none other than Allan’s wife, Pat Harris. You can immediately feel the love and partnership between them. They are an unstoppable duo whose dreams are coming true together. In the latter part of August into Spring will see them bring, Cross That River, to audiences again.
I wondered if audiences were still weary about coming back to live shows but I saw first hand that people were in fact coming out in droves. Everyone in the audience was respectful and very aware of keeping with safety guidelines. With a return to semi normalcy, how is it for an artist to perform for live audiences? Harris says it takes a while to learn how to perform with a certain effervescence. When asked what his advice was he replied, “ You already know how to play, so develop your persona, go to different jam sessions. Find a jam that might not even be jazz focused. Get that variety.”
As we thanked him and went to our seats the room was a buzz with excitement. As the lights dimmed, Harris and his band came on stage, to roaring applause. It is in his live shows that you really see the magic of Harris. Not only is he a great musician, but a performer, and story teller. It's like you're having an intimate conversation and yet you're in a room full of people. Harris shows not only respect for his audience but his band members. Something artist rarely do, is immediately introduce their band, this is usually mentioned at the end of shows. Harris right after the first song introduced his whole band so that you're not only connected with him but also with the artist performing alongside him. Birdland lets you eat while the performances are going on and I often wondered how an artist feels about playing while someone is eating a bowl of pasta or a burger. I found out this isn’t something Harris has to worry about. His on stage presence captures everyones attention, between each song telling you a story about himself and his life. With this background, even if you don’t know the next song he is going to play, you're already excited to hear it. The audience is now in on the events that led up to this moment.
Allan Harris shows no signs of stopping and this weekend is embarking on a tour. I highly recommend you see him live if you are in any of the areas. Performers like this are hard to come by nowadays and it's an experience that will leave you feeling uplifted and wanting more.
If you haven't already take a listen to Kate's Soulfood!