New projects, fresh ideas, and “first times” always have their challenges. For Harish Raghavan and Savannah Harris, their ongoing mentorship series has layers of newness. For their first show together at The Jazz Gallery, Raghavan mentioned that “not only was it my first time playing with Savannah, it was my first time with Morgan Guerin, my first time with Maria Grand, and my first time playing my own music with John Escreet, and Eden Ladin soon. Everything was new. There were no expectations. I don’t know what’s gonna happen next: That’s exciting.”
For background on the musicians and the mentorship series, we did a short piece introducing the mentorship here. Speaking on the phone with both Harris and Raghavan, we caught up after their Jazz Gallery show, and will chat with both of them once more at the end of their project.
The Jazz Gallery: Harish, was Savannah on your radar before you got paired together at The Jazz Gallery?
Harish Raghavan: Without a doubt. I met Savannah when she first moved to New York a few years ago. She grew up with some of my friends that I play with a lot, Ambrose Akinmusire and Justin Brown. They watched her grow up in Oakland, they’ve known her for a long time, so we had some familiarity. But I hadn’t heard her play until recently. I heard her with Aaron Parks, and she sounded great. Playing with her felt the same. Very talented.
TJG: Savannah, what were your first impressions of the gig at the Gallery?
Savannah Harris: It went well! I was definitely nervous, which was interesting for me. I always feel like I want to do well, but, I was nervous! The first set was cool. We were coming together and gelling. The second set was very powerful. It was tight. People we love came out and supported, it created a really nice environment.
TJG: Did your nerves change throughout the night?
SH: No! [Laughs] I can’t really say why. It wasn’t a fear of not being able to execute, though. For Harish, the execution of the music is really just at the base level for him. There’s a lot more to get into beyond just being able to play it. I was trying to get there. I had fear about getting there, and whether it would hit. It did hit, so I was very pleased after it was all said and done, and I think he did too.
TJG: What do you mean when you say that for Harish, there’s so much more than getting it right?
SH: Yesterday, we talked on the phone and had a little debrief, and shared a sense of what to do going forward. Harish said that the intention behind his music is that we are free of our traditional roles. Rather than “rhythm section being there to anchor, support, and accompany,” we actually are there as equivalent soloists. It makes the job of the rhythm section more complicated. In addition to being able to shape the music, support and accompany, you have to be so comfortable doing that that you’re able to engage as a soloist throughout the whole show. It takes it to the next level.
TJG: Harish, were catalyzing moments in your career where you started to push against the “traditional role” of the bassist?
HR: Never any particular moments, more like particular musicians. As bass players, we love the instrument, the pedagogy, the history, we love listening to everyone from Walter Page to Daryl Johns and everyone in between, you know. We’re always checking out what’s happening with the instrument. You start to understand the roles based on the history of the instrument and how different bass players were able to open up serious ideas of roles. We do have to understand what the significance of this instrument is, but it’s less about roles because often times, roles are bound by rules, and then things can become contrived. To be in the moment, you need to find the right kind of people, where understanding the foundation, history, and the role of their instruments is all secondary.
TJG: Savannah mentioned this idea that “simply executing the music” is at the base level for you. Does that approach the way you think about your own music?
HR: Without a doubt. I’ve had the luxury of playing with people where being in the moment is the number one requirement. There’s the understanding that form, rhythm, melody, meters, all that stuff, theory and scales, you need to take down as many barriers as possible so you can move with the music.
TJG: Savannah, did you find that it was preoccupying you, the question of whether you were inhabiting this new role in a helpful way? Was that on your mind while playing?
SH: Only before playing, really. While playing, I felt more at ease. Focused, and preoccupied with each millisecond. If you’re on stage and you think about anything else, you’ve missed so much. That’s something I learned from ELEW, Eric Lewis, one night at a super late session at Smalls. There was a little bit of a self-congratulatory air that night [laughs], but he sliced right through it. He was talking about how if you play something and it lands well, you have to be immediately engaged in whatever is going to musically happen in response. On the flip side, if you feel like you’re tanking, getting involved in that feeling takes you out of the music, and you end up missing all this other stuff that’s happening in the few milliseconds where you’re preoccupied. I’m always trying to pre-plan, get my mind clear, and get into a space where I can be that present. For Harish’s music, or with any involved music, you space out for one second and you’re lost. If you’re preoccupied at all, you’re missing it.
TJG: So Harish, do you use composition as a prompt to push you into that headspace?
HR: You should be in that headspace all the time, if possible. It takes practice. These days, I think I can be in that space and play a background gig. But first, you need to be in situations that allow you to be in that headspace, first and foremost. I would hope that I can cultivate some of that with the music I write: It’s a little involved, a little intricate, but at the essence, there should be complete freedom.
TJG: And the music you played with Savannah will be on an upcoming release?
HR: That’s right, the name of the album will be Calls for Action, out on Whirlwind Records in November, featuring Micah Thomas on piano, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Joel Ross on vibraphone and Kweku Sumbry on drums. Calls for Action: The call is to ignite, to do something, and the action is the improvisation. Basically, ‘music for improvisation.’
TJG: What have you been enjoying about this mentorship, and what would you hope Savannah gets out of the experience?
HR: Playing this music. I don’t get to play with my own group, or my own music, that often. It’s a lot of fun. For Savannah, I hope she’s enjoying playing my pieces, and playing in a way where she can do whatever she likes.
TJG: Savannah, have you been surprised about anything you’ve noticed about your own playing that’s changed by virtue of playing with him?
SH: Definitely. I play a lot of different styles, I’m in bands that are very different from each other. In some bands, my role is a lot simpler. Not easier, but my role is much more simple. For me, being able to stretch beyond what I even think stretching is, that’s like, whoa. It’s different. In this situation, the opportunity for that is there. That’s even the goal, to stretch beyond what you thought stretching could be. That’s tight. It’s fun. It’s hard. You have to be teleporting between the time and whatever other space you’re in, to really have an intrinsic sense of where things are. But it’s so fun. It’s not always appropriate, it’s definitely not what a lot of people want, but it’s cool to be in a situation where that’s what’s asked of you as a minimum requirement.
TJG: And it’s great that you have multiple shows in a row to explore this thing with Harish. What’s one ideal outcome of a residency like this for you? What would you hope to get out of the experience as a whole?
SH: My mind first goes toward developing creative relationships with people. I’m also interested in being at home in this style of playing. Having it as a sharp tool in the arsenal. Even beyond the residency, getting to be in a situation with Harish, or other situations akin to this, is personally exciting to me. Throughout this process, that’s something I’m hoping to get closer to, getting rid of some of those jitters a bit. Feeling more at home, and opening my own vocabulary, being able to say things in a different way, musically. It’s going to be sick.
Harish Raghavan and Savannah Harris continue their Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series at the Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn on Monday, September 22, and at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire on Thursday, October 3, 2019.