Jazz Mission : Kevin Harris Continues to Define American Jazz Worldwide From His Home on Lawn Street

There’s one thing one shouldn’t tell a musician:  That they sound the same as they did 10 years ago.

While many non-musicians might think it’s a compliment – as they love the music – for a musician, it means they haven’t grown.

No one can say that, however, about Mission Hill’s Kevin Harris, one of the city’s most talented jazz pianists who has taken a long musical journey from one end of the keyboard to the other as he has risen in prominence leading his band – the Kevin Harris Project.

This week, he told the Gazette that “growth” is the one thing that a musician craves, and it’s what he’s been striving for in the last few years.

“I’ve really been focusing on growing as a musician lately,” said Harris prior to a concert in the South End with his long-time friend, saxophonist Pat Loomis. “You play a lot and you might have great stuff going on, and then you hang around and these cats tell you you’re playing hasn’t changed since they saw you a few years ago. They tell you that you sound the same as in the old days. That’s not really a good thing for a musician to hear. I’ve been trying to really grow and shed as an artist. You really have to be read to try something different. I would hope I play different than I did two years ago or eight years ago. That’s the goal.”

And certainly he does, having progressed with the Kevin Harris Project in the music scene in Boston, and then moving it to New York City in 2011 – splitting time for eight years between his home there, and his real home with his wife, Luisa, on Lawn Street.

The couple has lived there since the early 2000s, and has become involved in Mission Hill through the arts. Harris came to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory, and began the Kevin Harris Project here before taking it worldwide. He has released more than five albums and is on faculty at Berklee College of Music. His ensemble has also participated at Havana’s Jazz Festivals in Cuba, Panama Jazz Fest, Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, Winter Jazz Fest in Denmark, Lima Jazz Fest in Peru, Levontin Fest in Israel, Round Midnight Festival in South

Korea, and various festivals in the USA.

Now, Harris still travels the world – he will be playing the Blue Note in Beijing and Shanghai in August and September – and still travels to New York for gigs frequently, but said he has been spending more of his time in Boston and Mission Hill these days.

“It’s been great to be back – the relationships are what I miss the most – friends,” he said. “If I had to sum it up in one word – it would be ‘friends.’ That’s what I love the most about being here. The music scene in New York is unparalleled, it’s true. But even playing back here, you realize how many people there are that keep you on your toes.”

Harris said he learned fast that it was important as a jazz pianist to be able to accompany a vocalist, and for a band leader and composer like himself, that was a new – but valuable – skill. He said so many opportunities opened up when he learned how to accompany vocalists in just the right way.

But that idea of accompanying other artists has opened up a new world of experimentation, he said. Over the last few years, he has been collaborating with artists from other mediums – most recently the author and writer James Baldwin. That was a collaboration that debuted in Boston last February, and Harris will be renewing it at the Panama Jazz Festival in 2020.

“The opportunity for me to really grow in New York was to develop this style of accompanying vocalists because it’s a style unto itself,” he said. “In the spirit of that collaboration, I’ve been collaborating with other artists like photographers. There is a lot of creativity in music that overlaps with other art forms. That’s new and cool.”

The Baldwin piece features a composition for an eight-piece wind octet with a rhythm section. One of the musicians also plays an electronic instrument that features excerpts of Baldwin speaking from his writings.

“His voice and words are almost like another instrument in the composition,” said Harris. “We’re pushing this new art form and pushing it forward in the same way Charlie Parker pushed jazz forward so many years ago.”

Nowadays, when Harris plays out in the neighborhoods, one will not only hear his fresh arrangements of traditional jazz tunes, but also hear an array of his own works – which blend his upbringing in Kentucky with his classic training and the urban experiences of Boston and New York.

One of his most compelling pieces he has been playing is the ‘Silent Majority,’ which is a subtle nod to the political times the country faces right now – noting that there may be people who aren’t out front protesting, but they are standing their ground every day for what is right.

“I don’t like to bash people with politics in my music because we’re all dented in already, but I believe there is a silent majority that knows right and knows how to do right,” he said. “They know when to stand up and protest when need be.”

Above all, Harris said he hopes those in the neighborhood would support their local musicians, like himself and others. He said with strong music and culture in the neighborhood, there’s a chance that people could think differently about old hang-ups.

“What are we without culture and the arts?” he asked. “Culture and the arts can provide solutions to the times we live in. There are a lot of people who try to solve things the same old way with money or military. This idea is about finding creative, new solutions to old problems.”

One can often catch Harris at Wally’s Jazz Café in the South End on Fridays and Saturdays, and he’s playing the Blue Note RegattaBar in Harvard Square on Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m.

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