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Scene & Heard

For jazz trio, a conversation in musical notes

Keyboardist Kevin Harris's trio includes bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and drummer Steve Langone. Keyboardist Kevin Harris's trio includes bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and drummer Steve Langone. (josh reynolds for the boston globe)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2009
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In jazz, as in life, for there to be a genuine exchange of ideas, listening is as crucial as talking.

"With a [jazz] trio, it's like a conversation - it's me, you, and another guy," says Kevin Harris, a jazz pianist who grew up in Kentucky and lives in Boston's Mission Hill neighborhood. "And say one guy is in a really talkative mood, so you and I just kinda hang back and listen - if he has some important things to say. If he's just running off at the mouth, we'll probably cut him off. But if somebody starts a good topic, then we'll all jump in and build on that. A lot of that I got from [pianist] Danilo Perez - that playfulness, that ability to listen, that push and pull."

Over the course of three albums and a growing slate of high-profile performances (his trio, the Kevin Harris Project, recently played the famed Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City), Harris has worked to refine the creative push and pull of a music that demands it. During a free performance in the cozy alcove of the North End Public Library one recent Saturday afternoon - with rows of books and shelved stacks of American Heritage magazines nearby - Harris beamed behind his keys as he teased melodic ideas from his drummer and occasional co-composer, Steve Langone, and upright bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa.

"He's amazing," says Langone of collaborating, recording, and performing with Harris. "It's always fresh and it's always different. He listens and leaves a lot of space."

As the smattering of midday audience members nodded along to the grooves on that Saturday, the bandleader punctuated particular passages - a supple bubble of bass, say, or an elegant ripple of cymbals spreading like liquid gold over a tricky syncopated beat - with an audible "ohhh" or "ahhh" that grew with his grin.

Harris says his audible reactions like those are involuntary responses of pure pleasure; unfettered delight at what he's hearing and feeling.

"I want to be as disconnected as I can from all the thoughts that get in the way of the music," says Harris. "I just want to be in the moment. I believe there's some spiritual connection to the music that we're playing that moves us. I think a lot of that is connected to the way I was raised in church. If the music moved you, there was shouting all over, like 'Thank you Lord!' "

Music always moved him. "For me it was gospel," says Harris, who's now 33 and also teaches music at the Cambridge Friends School and Charles River School. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't in church, from the time I was a little kid in Lexington, Kentucky. I went to Greater Liberty Baptist Church and music was in the air, man, it was in your bones. Nobody sat down. Everybody's up clapping."

One day, Harris sat down at the church piano. "I didn't have any training but they showed me one chord and said just work with it, listen and use your ear," says Harris. "I just kept adding to it."

He began taking piano lessons, and took up the trumpet too. But the instant he heard Ray Charles's "Georgia on My Mind," Harris knew what he wanted to do with his life. It did not come as a huge surprise when Harris was accepted to the New England Conservatory (which brought him to Boston to stay). After all, his mother (one of 11 siblings) is a pianist and singer. In fact, Harris says, his mom's entire family sings. Most of his father's side of the family - his dad only has eight siblings - can sing and play something too.

Maybe that's where Harris learned how to listen to different voices. "His playing makes you feel like you can contribute something," says Kaumeheiwa. "It's music that is very open to going in different directions that you didn't know you were going to go in."

"Usually, what goes well wasn't planned in the first place," says Harris, sipping a coffee in a North End cafe after his band's set. "If you're not gonna take a chance, why do it? That's the beauty of it - living on the edge of the music. It's the freedom of it. Freedom. Freedom."

MIRED IN 3-D Taking the band's retro sensibility to a new dimension (a three-dimensional one, actually), "Hypnotic," the latest album by Boston garage rockers Muck and the Mires, features a 3-D cover that comes packaged with those funny glasses your grandparents wore to those Godzilla drive-in movies. Furthermore, the album, produced by legendary rock Svengali Kim Fowley, is being released on LP (it's also available on CD "for the turntable challenged," according to the band). The band celebrates the platter's release with a show tonight at T.T. the Bear's Place on a terrific bill that also includes headliners the Woggles, the Konks, and Watts. Tickets $10.

Know something cool on the local music scene? E-mail Jonathan Perry at roughgems@aol.com.

THE KEVIN HARRIS PROJECT At Scullers Jazz Club at 8 p.m. April 22. Tickets are $20 (show and dinner reservations $65) at 617-562-4111.