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What's His Pleasure? : Crowd Favorite Gene Harris Says the Only Audience He Aims to Satisfy Is Himself


Pianist Gene Harris is an expert at crowd control. Known for a rich, jubilant style, Harris is the kind of piano player who involves his listeners, eliciting shouts and cries from them as he works, giving his live performances the feel of a revival meeting held under a tent on a hot summer night.

During a February performance at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, Harris, though he denies it's his style, performed a calculated reworking of blues, ballads and pop tunes to stir up the assembled. His solos built from cool, sophisticated phrases played at reserved tempos to roaring, dynamic statements that recalled the strength Joe Williams used to call up when singing in front the Basie band. In short, he's the kind of musician who can drive a crowd wild.

His bassist, Luther Hughes, once told us that he'd never worked with another musician who could "reach out and get the audience in the palm of his hand and work them like a big piece of putty the way Gene does. He's a master at communicating with a crowd through the keyboard."

But ask Harris how calculated is his rapport with an audience--if, indeed, he plays to the crowd and how its response affects his play--and he sounds a bit miffed when he answers.

"I think that would be the phoniest way you could ever make a living, playing to an audience," he said Thursday from his home in Boise, Ida. "When I work, I definitely play for Gene Harris. I do the things that sound right for me, that make me happy."

And, he says, that policy has always paid dividends.

"I remember the first time I played Birdland in New York back in '57 or '58. I don't remember who the other bands were that night, but the audience sat there very reserved and listened and applauded politely. Then I came up and played, and they went totally nuts for every song I did. People got up on their feet and danced.

"It's always been that way. As long as I play for me, I'm in good shape. It's when I try to do things for people that I'm not as successful. That's why I never take requests, never write out a set for the band in advance; they never know what I'm going to play from song to song. I'm playing totally spontaneously, and I'm playing to make me happy. And music does make me happy."

Though this policy may sound selfish, it's resulted in one of the most successful careers in the business. Harris, who performs Sunday afternoon at Orange Coast College, was born in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1931 and was largely self-taught as a player. He modeled his sound on recordings he heard of piano legends Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. In 1956, he joined with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Bill Dowdy to form the Three Sounds, a popular trio that made its reputation on accessible blues and pop-generated jazz.

Harris continued leading the Three Sounds after the departure of Simpkins and Dowdy in the late '60s, then began forming groups under his own name while working with the likes of Ernestine Anderson, Ray Brown and Benny Carter. Southern Californians got a chance to know him well in the early '80s, when he was a regular in bassist Brown's house trio at the now-defunct Loa club in Santa Monica.


Today Harris, who claims he's continually trying to cut down on travel to spend more time in Idaho, has reassembled his 18-piece Superband, which toured the world (Cairo, Casablanca, Istanbul, Ankara, Seoul and New York) in 1989 and 1990 and is readying the group for another globe-trotting jaunt.

He's also doing his best to resist a burgeoning career as a soloist, which was spurred by his 1993 solo recording "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall." His rendition of "My Funny Valentine" was pulled from the disc and used in the movie "Malice." People magazine took notice of the tune, and suddenly he was being called for unaccompanied performances, something he'll be doing across the United Kingdom later this month.

"That's the biggest mistake I've made was doing that solo album," he grumbled, teasingly.

But Harris' main vehicle is his quartet with bassist Hughes, guitarist Ron Eschete and drummer Paul Humphrey, who'll be with him in Costa Mesa.

Though it may seem overkill to include a guitar in the mix, especially with Harris' multilayered sound, the pianist finds that the formula suits his style. And once again, it's what pleases him that counts.

"Asking me why I use the guitar is like asking why I use the bass. It's a rhythm thing. I like getting that pulse. But it's also my love for the guitar. I have one here at home and will mess around with it from time to time. I personally just love the sound of the instrument and especially the way Ronnie plays it."

Harris chooses material the same way.

"I'm always looking for new songs. There's no such thing as a certain kind of thing that attracts me. I don't care if it's country, rock or jazz. If it makes me feel good, I'm going to use it."

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