Ratzo Harris’s Vibrational Wow

Ratzo Harris 1

Playing mightily with meter, the aptly named Alt.Timers gives the ear food for thought. Not only are its rhythms unexpected; melodies ask you to relinquish control and go where they want to take you. Bassist Ratzo Harris (also a multi-instrumentalist: guitar, cello, trumpet, more) provides satisfying contrast with his deep, assertive tones against the sibilant percussion in “Fowler’s Better Blues.” With stunning flautist Cheryl Pyle in the ultra-bluesy “It Could Happen,” Harris underlines and understates the funk just enough to make this tune fly. The cleverly named “Sombriety” is, yes, somber; it begins with the pairing of piano and bass that work together like hand in glove. Harris’s exquisite patience in the pacing of this song gives it a relatable character, perhaps exploring humanity’s missteps, hesitations and fear of turning corners.   

Were you originally trained in classical music?

No and yes. My first exposure and training were from my parents: my mother taught me how to read music and how to finger a C major scale on the piano. My father showed me the cycle of fifths and had me accompany his harmony exercises while he was studying at Jordan College in Indianapolis.

When I was in second grade, I was involved in a music program that exposed me to some classical music. I wound up winning an award for being able to identify the themes of several pieces of orchestral music.  

After we moved to San Francisco, he taught me the basics of trumpet playing and when I was in third grade I took up the instrument formally, but that didn’t last very long; when I found my mother’s guitar, I taught myself how to finger a few chords and started teaching myself how to play it. Eventually my dad bought me a nice acoustic guitar and I began exploring the music books that my folks kept lying around the house. When it became obvious that I was attracted to music and had an aptitude for it, my dad hooked me up with lessons with the great guitarist, Jerry Hahn. I was mostly interested in learning folk songs and some of the popular music of the time. The Beatles were pretty big back then (1965) and I would play along with their cartoon show on Saturday mornings. The Monkees were also an influence and I would play along with that show as well. So I was learning my music from the television, radio and the 45s that I could get at the music store.

Then, when I was about 11, I was really sick and had to stay in bed for a while and was working on my chords when Leroy Vinnegar, a friend of my dad’s who was in town while playing bass for Les McCann, had to go through my room to watch something on our television. When he was in the other room, I was playing along with whatever he was watching. When he was done, he walked back through my room and said, “You should play the bass.”

When I enrolled in junior high school a few months later, I signed up for the orchestra, because it was the only way I could get next to a string bass. That’s when I began learning how to play classical music. 

What were the highlights of your music education?

I was allowed to rehearse and perform in the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra when I was 13. One of the clarinetists there, Alex Foster, used to let me and my friends play jazz with him during the day. I had met him and Jon Faddis at a summer camp at the University of the Pacific.

The jazz band at the camp was run by Bob Soder, a fantastic pianist and arranger who taught a big band course on the high school level. Faddis was later “discovered” by Dizzy Gillespie (I’m not sure if Bob had anything to do with that or not) and famously relocated to New York. Alex went onto the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and found his way into Jack DeJohnette’s Directions ensemble.

I also met Tom Rainey at that camp. We wound up playing and recording in the Mike Nock Quartet—with Alex Foster; then the Jane Ira Bloom Quartet; and the Kenny Werner Trio.

I dropped out of high school at an early age and went on the road with John Handy. I went back to school, eventually earning a master’s degree in jazz history from Rutgers University in 2009.

My master’s thesis was primarily a debunking of the voluminous errata about Jim Pepper [see below] found in several major encyclopedic works on jazz and Native American musicians, which I hope to turn into a book one day. 

What attracted you to the bass?

There was a moment when I announced to my mom and dad that I had decided to become a musician. I was around 10 and they tried to hide their disappointment with my decision.

I was playing guitar at the time, but mostly just jamming with the television, radio and records. I remember my mom talking to the point where the wall and the ceiling meet, saying: “Well, play the bass, you’ll always work.” When I first played a string bass, I took to it in a way that I hadn’t with the piano, trumpet or guitar. It felt right.

The way the string transmitted the vibration of whatever note was being played into the bones of my fingers said to me, this is IT! I put the guitar down and focused on the bass. I would carry it for miles to play at jam sessions and my first gigs, until I could finally buy a car. 

What else do you play?

Bass guitar, a little cello, what I call “arranger’s guitar,” and very remedial piano. I learned by piggybacking on my trumpet lessons and took up tuba and trombone in high school. I know how to play a saxophone and flute; but, like with the brass instruments, I haven’t kept my chops up on them.

Why did you become interested in the Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper?

I met him and we became friends. We shared an apartment (actually a cottage) for a while and I played with him for several years.

Due to our age differences, he was like a big brother to me for a while. He wasn’t very good at explaining his thinking about music, at least not the “technical” parts. He was more into exploring tunes and playing the ones, like “Witchi Tai To,” that he knew would keep him in high-profile venues. He did, however, spend a lot of time practicing multiphonics and could make them sound like animals, like a moose or an eagle. That impressed me enough that I figured out how to do some of them on the bass.

He also greased the skids for me when I moved to New York in 1977, so I was able to meet and play with great musicians like Joanne Brackeen and Bob Moses.  

What was it like to perform alongside singer Mose Allison?

Mose Allison was such a unique player (and person) that I mostly felt like I couldn’t get it right and that he was never going to hire me ever again.

But over the thirty-year span that I was his New York bassist, I knew I was in the presence of one of the greatest soothsayers. I heard a truth emerge from his lyrics that was damning and, at the same time, consoling our self-imposed mire in the human condition. And his piano playing was like Thelonious Monk’s: iconic and inimitable, so its own that I couldn’t relate to it as I would to most pianists.

The way he approached the syntax of harmony and melody reflected a place that most jazz musicians, especially today’s, have never been.

Ditto, with sax player Joe Henderson (1983 in Italy)?

Playing with Joe Henderson was a dream come true for me. I was hanging out in the living room of the cottage I was sharing with Pepper when I got a call from him to audition for a gig at Howard Rumsey’s Concerts By the Sea in Redondo Beach. His tunes were being played at the jam sessions I attended and I had taught myself to play the whole melody of “Inner Urge” (at the time, most bass players only played the first half, like Bob Cranshaw on the recording it was the title track on). So, when I got to Joe’s house and we started going over his tunes, I played the second half as well.

Anyone who has worked with Joe knows that he could present one of the most stoic personas conceivable. When I played “Inner Urge” for him, I was somewhat surprised that he showed no reaction! But he turned the audition into a rehearsal and, when we were done, told me the details and conditions of the gig. He took me to Europe in 1977 (which is when the video from Italy was from) and later that year to New York, where I jumped ship and continue to make my residence. 

How would you characterize the changes in jazz from the 1970s to now—musically but also in the industry itself?

The computer has made huge changes to human culture when it comes to music. There are programs to record, notate and even compose music all over the place!

Telematically conferenced performances, like those of Sarah Weaver and Mark Dresser, are another way that the internet has changed the music industry: live music can now be performed by artists in different locations around the world and heard simultaneously in other locations. What this has done to the music industry is to shift its business model from selling physical products that can be taken off the shelf (or out of the bin) to ones that can be downloaded.

Since its inception, even before it was called “jazz,” it was performed primarily by members of various subaltern communities; Creole, Italian, Irish, German, Indian, Mexican and other “non-white” musicians were all working hard to get their brand of syncopated dance music into profitable venues and in front of higher-paying audiences, and doing a pretty good job of it.

Probably the most obvious change has been the use of louder instruments. To a lesser degree, but still obvious to an untrained ear, is a greater use of dissonance across the board, so much so that simple triads are sometimes heard as novel! I don’t see much change in melodic content in jazz, though. I know that there seems to be a big difference in the melodic improvisations of the Dixieland cats and what’s going on in the cutting edge today, but when you really get down to it (unless you’re looking at the very far-out stuff that microtonalists and the multiple-meter players are doing) it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, only a little louder and denser.

Do you think jazz sub-genres are blending together or are irrelevant?

The human animal seems to have a need to categorize things so that it can remember them. Through hybridization and “evolution,” new genres are being invented by the Great American Culture Machine all the time. 

Bass seems physically demanding. What’s the most challenging part of playing it?

Well, to be honest, the greatest challenges are probably yet to come, possibly because I’m still learning to play it. I’ve also had a few health issues arise in the last two years that found resolution only through surgical procedures. And while every musical instrument presents a unique set of physical challenges, the bass, especially the upright bass, can be difficult. The first time I noticed this was when I began to play jazz and my fingers would become blistered. Sometimes they would break open and bleed while I was playing. Then there’s the tendonitis, that can be a major challenge, to play through something that the playing aggravates!

But the challenge that has consistently confronted me for my time as a bassist is one of consistency. The bass is a large instrument and the physical changes it undergoes during the passage of the seasons, while seemingly slight, are easily measurable. There are times of the year when the bass you play today doesn’t feel much like it did yesterday and certain weather conditions can make the instrument change drastically in a matter of hours. So there is the challenge of keeping up with the instrument’s reaction to its environment. 

What are the essential ingredients for a great ensemble?

Trust, trust and trust. 

How is your playing affected by different kinds of instrumentalists?

One singer will affect me differently than another. While one trumpet player will need me to play mostly roots and fifths, another might need me to play upper-structure type counterpoint. Some singers play inside the changes so I tend to employ the harmonic “outer voices” paradigm that most of the music we know today comes from. Others are all over the map, stylistically, demanding that risks be taken, no matter the result. Both approaches are valid and both are very musically rewarding.

When it boils down to it, every musician has their own musical vocabulary that they access and they each affect my playing differently. It’s like reading books by different authors, even if they’re writing in similar genres.  

What are your top memorable festivals or concerts?

There are so many! I just played a festival in Lake George, New York, with Cynthia Hilts and her group, Lyric Fury. We opened the day and it ended with one of my all-time heroes, Dave Liebman, performing the music of John Coltrane with his big band. I’ll never forget that!

Probably my favorite festival to play in Europe is the North Sea Festival in The Hague. I played Mastrick with Kenny Werner once and got to see Chick Corea’s trio with John Patitucci, which I’ll never forget. I think I saw Miles Davis there, too.

One that sticks in my mind was playing the Warsaw Jazz Festival with Betty Carter. Poland was still under Communist rule then and we flew in on the Polish State airline, Lott. The airline didn’t get all of our luggage on the plane and we had to do a three-week tour that, if I remember correctly, didn’t have the drums, most of Betty’s wardrobe and half the charts; they followed us around until we got home. After raging uselessly against the airline when it was discovered that the bags were still in New York, we were taken by our guide/guard to the hotel we were to stay in. Of course, the rooms weren’t ready for hours and when we finally got into them, we only had an hour until sound check. When I got to the sound check, none of the rest of the band was there. So they had me be the sound check, just a bass. That was weird.

The rest of the tour went well enough, although I gave Betty my notice during a sound check in Oslo. It was because I knew that this was a gig I really wasn’t ready to do. Betty was pretty good about helping me learn to play the way she wanted, and I needed to move on—I wasn’t fired: I quit. The memorable moment happened on our way back. We had to fly in and out of Warsaw and at the airport we had to declare how much money we had when we entered Poland, so we didn’t bring any and were given zlote when we arrived. When we left, however, we had been paid, so now we had a lot of American money. John Hicks was the pianist and, I believe, the highest paid member of the group (which made sense since he had been working for Betty the longest and wrote most of the charts). When the agents looked at the forms we filled out and saw that we were now declaring we had this money, one of them asked to see John’s. He opened his wallet to show him and the agent reached in and took it all out of the wallet! John did something many of us would do when having all of their hard-earned cash taken from them: he protested with a “Hey, what are you …”. Before he finished his sentence, one could hear the sound of several machine guns being cocked as a group of police surrounded John and pointed them at him. This became something of a tense moment for the rhythm section of the Betty Carter Trio; I actually saw the blood drain from John’s face! But then came Betty, in the hoop skirt and bonnet she’d been wearing for most of the tour (we still didn’t have the luggage), walking in between the police saying in a voice probably reserved for misbehaving children, “What do you think you’re doing? You put that gun down!” And she put her hand on top of one of the gun’s barrels and gently pushed it towards the ground. The police were so surprised at this that they backed off. Then she looked at the agent with John’s dough and said, “Now give him back his money!” And he did! … I’ll never forget that! 

Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?

My mother’s father was a glass-blower from Sicily, but we didn’t know him at all. I’d like to go there and see if I can look up information about him. Her mother’s father was from Cuba and I’d really like to go there.

The music in both of these islands have had a major impact on jazz and I’d love to experience what that has become over the last 100 years. I’d also love to play in Australia!  

How do we get more people out to hear live jazz?

Make music education a bigger part of education in public and private schools. People who know how to play music go out to hear it. 

Current ensembles and newest projects?

Alt.Timers (http://www.denmanmaroney.com/Alt-Timers.html) with Denman Maroney and Bob Meyer; Lyric Fury, led by Cynthia Hilts; a guitar ensemble led by Ric Molina with a revolving personnel; Mr. Gone (https://www.facebook.com/MrGoneBand/), a jazz-fusion group led by Neil Alexander and Peter Furlan that focuses on the music of Weather Report; Fay Victor’s Herbie Nichols Sung project is expected to play a big festival in 2019; I’m going to be playing with Vicki Burns in New York and look forward to continuing making music with poet-painter-healer-singer Gitesha.

There’s a weekly gig I’ve been doing with saxophonist Steve Wirts and guitarist-extraordinaire Joe Cohn (usually Pete Zimmer is on drums); it’s a closed jam session that gets some pretty exciting players coming in (like George Garzone and Tommy Campbell).

I’ve been playing a lot with a Cubano-jazz ensemble, La Banda Ramirez (led by flutist Carolyn Steinberg and her husband, drummer-percussionist Chacho Ramirez). I’ve also been involved for the last 35+ years in the music of David Lopato, who is very heavily influenced by Gamelan [Indonesian] music as well as being an incredible jazz player. I also participate in saxophonist John Richmond’s jam session at The Turning Point in Piermont, NY in a rotation that includes Harvie S., Cameron Brown, Bill Moring and Mike McGuirk.

I’ve been recording the music of Philadelphia-based vocalist-composer Kaylé Brecher for several years now and she’s working on a follow-up to her last CD “This is Life.” I’m also looking forward to performing with poet-singer-songwriter Vince Bell after his CD, “Ojo,” is released in April.  

What is the biggest challenge for you today?

For me the biggest challenge remains stage-fright. I’m constantly exploring strategies for quelling my nerves after I’ve played. I keep on praying I’ve not failed for the last time. 

Place you’d most like to perform?

Somewhere that I could play jazz five nights a week with a four-week vacation every year!

What is Lyric Fury?

http://cynthiahilts.com/lyric-fury/. It’s an eight-piece group that pianist-composer-singer Cynthia Hilts put together to play her compositions. The instrumentation is unique and interesting: trumpet, trombone, alto sax (doubles on tenor), baritone sax (doubles on soprano), cello, bass, drums and Cynthia (piano-voice). Her compositions run a cool gamut from jokingly descriptive (“Blues for the Bronchs”) to poetic (“Dog In a Red Pickup”). She, like I, is an anti-war person and her anthem, “Peace Now,” should be sung the world over!

What is that Chapman-stick-looking bass you play?

The generic term for it is a stick-bass. The particular one I was playing with Roseanna Vitro at Trumpet’s was the first one that Bill Merchant built for me as a travel bass (because all of the airlines were charging huge sums to take an acoustic bass in a flight case). Sadly, it took a bad fall in Europe when one of my band mates dropped it on a train platform while holding it for me while I ran to the bathroom. It took more than twenty years, but the neck finally disintegrated. Fortunately, I had Bill make another one (because airlines were now charging oversize fees for the first one he built). It folds in half and saves oversize and overweight charges. He calls it the Vertical Bass (http://www.merchantbass.com/vertical/verticalhome.htm) and it sounds like a high-quality bass to me.

The place where the difference is most apparent is when using the bow, but I have modified it with Clevinger pickups and it gets a great arco sound. The tone of the instrument isn’t in the box (air) as much as in the plate (wood). Of course, the air adds a certain sonic trait that is almost impossible to replace, but I use some Eventide processors I got on the web that add a little roominess to the tone.


“Ghendhing for a Spirit Rising” (David Lopato – http://www.davidlopato.com/Gendhing.html)

“Crispr” (Alt.Timers – https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/alttimers)

“This Is Life” (Kaylé Brecher – https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/kaylebrecher2)

“Lyric Fury” (Cynthia Hilts – http://cynthiahilts.com/listenshop/)

“Ojo” (Vince Bell – to be released in April: http://www.vincebell.com/news.html)  

Current projects?

I’m working on several long-range projects. One is a book about Jim Pepper and the relevance of his music in the global economic culture. Another is a series of pieces composed for solo bass. I’d like to record them for posterity.

What would you like to experiment more with or develop further?

I would like to find more situations I can compose music for. I would like to travel abroad again.  

How will you grow your presence in 2018?

Hopefully better than in 2017!

Other comments?

It’s been a pleasure and an honor to answer your questions.

For more information, visit Ratzo Harris on Facebook.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ratzo Harris. Top photo (c) Scott Friedlander.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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