At the beginning of January, I got a pass to the Winter Jazzfest and spent Saturday night hopping around Greenwich Village in the freezing cold, waiting to get into overstuffed bars. Quite a lot of it was hectic and noisy, but I found a much more welcoming vibe in Judson Memorial Church, with its open floor and stained glass windows. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was playing a set with his quartet, his warm and contemplative sound filling the resonant space.
But I was equally drawn to the piano player, who peppered Akinmusire’s compositions with shrewd voicings and steady, classically-informed lines—angled arpeggios often floating over the groove, dozens of ideas stuffed into short phrases. That pianist is Sam Harris, a young player from Dallas who is coming to The Jazz Gallery with his trio on February 26th.
You might not know Harris’s name, but you’ve probably heard him on other people’s records. He’s on Akinmusire’s 2014 release The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, as well as projects from Gretchen Parlato, Ben Van Gelder, and Rudy Royston. He’s a top-notch sideman with a demeanor to match, but his compositions are formidable in their own right.
Like Akinmusire, Harris is a product of the Manhattan School of Music. He met Akinmusire after school had ended, and immediately ended up on the same jam session circuit, which sometimes went through Harris’s apartment. Now, he’s a member of Akinmusire’s working group. “[Ambrose] gives everyone in that group the freedom to be themselves. I never felt like I had to prove anything,” Harris says. “That’s a very liberating feeling when you’re a sideman.”
Harris talks about his many travels all over the world like a seasoned veteran—“Oh, just kind of gigs all over the place,” he tells me about Akinmusire’s European tour. And he’s been in and out of the Gallery a bunch recently—he played a night just last month with trumpeter Philip Dizack, and he’ll be back again with saxophonist Adam Larson two days after his own show.
His show on February 26th, however, will be different. “The way I tend to work is, I’ll book a gig, maybe with a vague idea of what I want to do, and use that as motivation to condense everything I’ve been thinking about in the last few months and actually write some music,” Harris says. “I’m in the middle of that right now.”
When I ask him why he writes with live performance in mind rather than a finely-tuned studio project, Harris says that when working on a recording “…There’s that looming threat of permanence. When you’re playing a concert it’s all in the moment, and you’re sharing it with the audience. In the studio, you don’t have feedback, everyone is in separate rooms, so it’s harder to get the energy.”
To prepare for this show, Harris isn’t just writing at the piano, but with tape decks and samplers as well. He was drawn into electronic music creation by the DJ Dakim, and a particular set on YouTube: “It blew my mind and opened me up to different ideas about what it is to improvise a set of music,” Harris says. For this gig, he’s been experimenting with different synthesizers and micro-samplers, a far cry from the more linear approach of his customary settings. “I’ve been recording tapes of weird improvisations, then using the samplers to reprocess them, and then playing on top of that,” he says. “I’ve found it to be really inspiring.”
The next step will happen when Harris gets back into the room with his trio mates, drummer Craig Weinrib and bassist Martin Nevin. “They have no idea,” Harris says, laughing, of his electronic wanderings. “That’s another part of the composing process. I trust them so much and know their voices will bring a lot.” So when you show up to the Gallery, you might hear some smatterings of Ambrose-esque stylings, but mostly a pianist breaking out on his own.
The Sam Harris Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 26th. The group features Harris on piano & keyboards, Martin Nevin on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.