This is an interview/review published in The Herald on November 30, 1994.
Funky Gene’s. The title of Gene Harris’s new CD says it all. And they don’t come much funkier. Not in Nairn anyway. But, unlikely as it may sound, Nairn and Mr H have a thing goin’ on. Last weekend the American pianist paid his second visit in two months to the wee town whose healthy and regular diet of major jazz artistes — courtesy of local fruiterer/promoter Ken Ramage — often puts the rest of the country to shame.
Harris had such a good time when he played Nairn in September that he was only too keen to take up the invitation to come again. Three not insignificant factors in his readiness to accept were guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Dave Green and drummer Allan Ganley.
”These guys are cream of the crop in Great Britain. I hadn’t worked with any of them before my first night in Nairn (my first night in Scotland), and I certainly wasn’t expecting the high quality of talent that I got. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised, 99% of American jazz musicians are sons of bitches ’cause they believe that just because they’re American they’re the best in the world. That’s a lie.”
Michigan-born Harris, however, is regarded by many as one of the best exponents of his instrument and is in demand all over the world. During his lifelong musical career he has rarely been out of jazz work (although he did make a brief foray into the world of disco music in the 1970s); as leader of various trios (the first being the Blue Note-recorded Three Sounds) or bigger outfits like the all-star Philip Morris Superband. In Nairn, he summed himself up quite simply: ”I’m just an old funky blues player at heart.”
But to categorise Harris as a blues player is to underestimate his versatility. True, he has the emotional intensity of a blues man. His playing on Saturday was passionate — oftimes verging on the melodramatic: I Thought About You began as a poignant, reflective piece but became angry and resentful. Georgia began in the same way, but it developed into a rollicking boogie woogie — the style which, through the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, first inspired Harris to take to the keyboards himself.
In cheerful mode, Harris displayed a remarkable lightness of touch — his fingers barely skimming the ivories as they scurried up and down the magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano (especially hired from Edinburgh) — and a facial expression reminiscent of another great jazz pianist/entertainer, Fats Waller. But it was the romantic numbers that drew the most enthusiastic reaction from an already-converted Nairn audience on Saturday. Harris played Misty with fingers positively dripping sentiment, but it was his Sweet Lorraine — less sickly and therefore more enjoyable — which was the real highlight of the evening.
There can be no doubt that Harris will be back in Nairn. Which is great for Nairn jazz fans and those who can be bothered to make the three and a half hour, £29 train journey from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness. But until someone in the central belt starts to book these big jazz names when they’re touring over here, they’re just going to keep flying over our heads.