Loston Harris – Comes Love
After hearing his impressive new recording “Comes Love”, one could be forgiven for assuming that Loston Harris has immersed himself in jazz and the piano for all of his young life. His command of dynamics and tempos, the knowledge of repertoire and effortless execution of classic techniques suggest a keyboard prodigy who was playing while still in the cradle. Yet it was not until a fateful encounter in college that Harris embraced jazz and the piano as his own.
Harris, who grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, did have a brief fling at piano lessons when he was five. “But I gave it up,” he admits, “and for the next 15 years all I did was diddle on the piano. When I was nine or ten, though, I started playing drums, and played them all the way through high school. My drumming was more fusion, contemporary Rock and Roll and R&B — the kind of things you play with your contemporaries in high school. My only idea of jazz at the time was fusion.”
“I had no doubt about pursuing music, though. I had gained a lot of respect in the local area as a high school student, and received a scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University based on my drumming. I was a percussion major, and for the first year or so at VCU, that was my whole focus.”
Then Harris met Ellis Marsalis, pianist and patriarch of New Orleans’ reigning jazz clan, who was a visiting professor at VCU. “Ellis Marsalis heard me messing around at the piano,” Harris recalls, “and that started it all. He said that I had a very natural touch on the instrument, and that I should pursue the piano; so I chose to study with him and see if I could develop it a little more.”
What Harris discovered was both a new instrument and a new musical world. “I was immediately fascinated by the control a pianist has, dictating through harmonies where the music will go,” he recalls. “I felt that I could express myself more. Even though I knew I would compete with people who had been playing since they were five, I just accepted that as something I would keep working on.”
Harris found an invaluable mentor in Ellis Marsalis. “One of the first things that Ellis told me was that all of the resources are there, on records; so I just listened to the old masters like Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal. I enjoyed it so much that eight to ten hours a day of listening to music and transcribing solos didn’t seem like work. Finding the notes came naturally, much more so than learning the drums.”
While growing comfortable with the keyboard, Harris also absorbed the broader jazz language. “I had been playing drums for 10 years, but there was so much of the history of jazz drumming that I hadn’t gotten,” he admits. “Mr. Marsalis also encouraged me to hear Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, all of the older masters I had never checked out. That’s when I embraced more traditional jazz, which encouraged me even more to gravitate toward the piano.”
When Ellis Marsalis returned to New Orleans, Harris transferred to Howard University. “By then my playing was strong enough that I was getting asked to sit in with groups,” he explains, “and Howard also gave me the chance to study with Geri Allen, who would come down once a week to teach piano, and Dr. Billy Taylor, who was an artist-in-residence. I was able to sit down with both of them and have them analyze my playing. I also decided to go out and get whatever jobs I could find as a pianist, in a shopping mall or whatever. It was a lot easier than finding work playing drums.” Work came quickly and gave Harris the opportunity to hone his burgeoning talent. “After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land a local gig three nights a week in Reston, Virginia,” he says. “So I didn’t have to scramble for a 9-5 job; and, since I worked weekends, I could go to New York for study or work during the week. I’ve had that job for six years, so I’ve balanced staying close to home and running up to New York to play with my friends.”
His time in both locations has been well spent. At home, a recommendation from Tom Carter and Shelby Fischer of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz led to Harris performing at the residence of Vice President Al Gore, and the rapport that developed has led the VP to extend several more invitations to the pianist. The wider jazz world has also gotten to know Harris, thanks to his work with Wynton Marsalis on a 22-city quintet tour in 1995 and his participation in pianist Marcus Roberts’ Portraits in Blue tour the following year. On the tour with Roberts, what began as a role as second pianist on orchestral pieces grew into Harris opening the concerts with his own trio sets, as well as playing a two-piano interlude with Roberts during “Rhapsody in Blue.” “I figured out a way to play in the cracks that he left open,” Harris explains, “and of course, he taught me so much.” Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman are among the other musicians who have played with Harris; and, as his N2K Encoded Music debut makes clear, he has also developed a strong rapport with drummer Clarence Penn (his VCU roommate), bassist David Grossman and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim.
Harris’ second encounter with a member of the Marsalis family produced yet another expansion of his musical universe. “Wynton is always teaching about checking out the history of your instrument,” the pianist explains. “That led me to Nat Cole, which in turn led me to singing. After listening to Nat, I picked up the phone and called his brother Freddy Cole, to see if he could recommend a vocal coach. Freddy said “Just do it,” so the next week I became a vocalist. Now I’m listening to Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Hartman, Sammy Davis, Jr., taking it seriously but also having fun. I’m really fascinated by playing and singing at the same time. It amazes me how Nat Cole could play so much and sing, as if he were two different people.”
Yet another aspect of Loston Harris is his composing, which was highlighted on his debut recording Stepping Stones on the local Swing Records label. “I’m still working on my composing,” he reports, “and in the future I hope to take that part of my music to the next level. I’d also like to incorporate an orchestral sound with strings into the trio format. Right now, I’m trying to learn as many of the old songs as I can and interpret them with my own personality. The trio records of Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal, as well as Nat Cole, have been especially inspiring. My style really began to formulate when I fell in love with Ahmad Jamal’s concept of treating the trio like a mini-orchestra.”
Given his achievements to date, the realization of his larger ambitions is the least we can expect from Loston Harris.