When vibraphone player Greg Harris took his New World Citizen Quartet out to play a couple of months ago, opening for Baaba Maal at the L2 Arts and Culture Center in Denver, he positioned himself behind a Gyil (pronounced JEE-lee), a 14-key xylophone indigenous to the African nations of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Cte d’Ivoire. For an experienced and fluid vibraphone player like Harris, it’s not a huge leap, but then again, the material, the technique and the whole balance between percussive and harmonic instincts were rooted in the cultures the instrument came from.
We asked Harris last week about the experience, and whether or not playing the gyil forced him into a new mode of musical thinking.
“Well,” he says, “one of the main things I learned is that music is all about energy, the energy you put into whatever instrument it is, whether it be melodic, harmonic, percussive or purely rhythmic. That’s one of the things that bridges the gap.
“But you kind of have to get yourself into a little different headset, you have to put yourself into the instrument. Obviously I’m not a West African guy, but I’m very interested in the music and the ethno-music evolution of it ... how it came about.”
Harris relates his first real “lesson” in gyil.
“I was in West Africa, and I was supposed to meet my teacher — his name was Kakraba Lobi, he actually just passed away, a revered master xylophonist from Ghana — I saw him at the university where I was taking a couple of classes. He told me to take the trotro, which is this shabby little bus with a hole in the floor … and get off at this bus stop outside Accra, the capital of Ghana. Then go past the lady who sells pineapples, and his house would be there.
“It actually took me three or four times to find the place, it was monsoon season and it was raining, and all these little kids in the street said they knew where the xylophone teacher lived, and there were all these little monkeys in the alleyway playing with the kids. And I get there, and he has these beautiful daughters and all these monkeys jumping around. He kind of grumbled a lot, and I couldn’t really understand him, but he sat me down in front of a xylophone right across from him, and he just starts to tear it up and go crazy.
“And then he stopped and said, ‘OK, your turn.’” But for the time being, Harris may be pushing his more Western music, as his Vibe Quintet released their third CD Glass Gold around the middle of last year, and their label, Dazzle (the label franchise started by the ground zero Denver jazz club of the same name, where Harris is a regular marquee) is making a radio and print promotional push with the release, one of the first of several they plan to release. The CD has garnered positive press for its silky, post-Miles groove and the transcendent vocal stylings of Venus Cruz, with whom he also gigs in Future Jazz Project.
The Quintet is a well-tenured and musically mature outfit, replete with articulate horns and unafraid to dip into ballads, a hallmark of bands who have grown confident of their material and trusting of their audiences. They are familiar faces at both Dazzle and The Laughing Goat in Boulder, so we tried to get Harris (who also plays both rooms with SuperCollider) to compare the two venues, but he wasn’t really comfortable singling out a favorite.
“Well, Denver and Boulder are both great listeners,” Harris says, “Boulder crowds want to have a good time, you just want to play good, honest music for them, and they’ll respond. But … Denver too.”
We recall a quote from a jazz guy — regrettably, we’ve forgotten whom — who once remarked to us that you could tell the quality the crowd by how well they took to the ballads. Anyone can play hard and flake the plaster from the ceiling and own a crowd with horsepower, but turn it down and slow it down and see if they follow you in. We asked Harris about that.
“Yeah, I think that’s very telling … Man, I love playing ballads, but I can tell you that in this day and age, it is harder to pull people in, definitely.
“But, I don’t know. I just love playing jazz vibraphone. It’s about my favorite thing ever.”
On the Bill
Greg Harris Vibe Quintet plays The Laughing Goat on Tuesday, Dec. 20. Show starts at 8:30 p.m. There is a $5 suggested donation. 1709 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-440-4628.