If you catch one club act this weekend, make sure it’s jazz maestro pianist James “Cornbread” Harris at Loring Pasta Bar where he’s a regular Friday draw.
The evening I made it over, the master was in fine form. I arrived in time for his off-the-cuff ode to transportation and a rambling missive somehow connecting Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train.”
After a few more standards, there was Clarence Williams’ “Terrible Blues” from Cornbread & Friends’ Live at the Hook & Ladder (Casino Records). The set, for the most part, is vintage swing done to a tasty turn, with a dash of down-in-the-alley blues playing off each other laid-back and airtight.
Even when the band leader changes key in the middle of a song — something he does from time to time — the solos are sweet to the point that two other guys at my table go to the amen corner, calling “Look out!,” and “Don’t hurt nobody!” and such.
Backing the living legend, you have mainstays Glen Graham (tenor sax), Scott Soule (acoustic bass), Doug Hill (drums) and relatively new recruit John Penny (guitar). Each killing in cold blood. No showboating, just matter of fact, making magic.
The main man casually shifts from dancing his fingers over the keys to sophisticated sounds wearing the ivories out on barrelhouse blues numbers. When he sings, Harris’ is a light, airy timbre. He wouldn’t make Big Joe Williams nervous, but it does get the job done — an original style, smoothly idiosyncratic with absolute authority.
Renowned among musicians, Harris doesn’t have a particularly high public profile but enjoys such distinction as having helped invent and perform on Augie Garcia’s historic “Hi-Yo Silver,” Minnesota’s first rock ‘n’ roll record. He was also the winner of The Blues Legend Award and The Sally Award. Not bad for somebody who started out playing “Chopsticks” in the military.
After the set, joining Harris and company in the dining room, I get the chance to shake his hand, thank him for some excellent sounds, and get the must-ask question out of the way: What did James, Jr., known to the world as famed music producer, Jimmy “Jam” Harris, learn from Dad?
The answer comes thoughtfully, “I wrote a song about that,” he replied, which would be “Lesson to My Son” (also from Live at the Hook & Ladder). “I taught him to be honest, straightforward, upright; be a decent, kind person.
“I told him, ‘If you got a dream, follow it. From what I’m seein,’— I’m not bragging — but he followed my advice. He’s the one who did it. Everyone takes care of their own self.”
Considering how even the most sought-after sidemen would give an arm to play with him, how did the band leader go about selecting personnel? “Well, the problem is, God put the ensemble together. I was playing Mickey’s Café. It was a jam session,” he said.
He points across the table at Soule. “This gentleman got into the conversation. He came in and had that thing. It got going. Different people sat in.
“We had a couple different drummers. We finally ended up with this one, here; 16 years I’ve had this drummer, Doug. The bass player was there first. And we got this gentleman, John Penny, the best guitar we’ve had and we’ve had some good ones.”
He continued, “We used to have a dynamite saxophone duo [Glenn Graham] playing with this guy, Jimmy-apolis. He got in a fight on the stage with Cadillac Kolstad. Took his horn and hit him with it.”
That’s how it goes interviewing Cornbread Harris. Ask him what time it is and he’ll give you roundabout instructions to build a clock. He does sum up, though, “Everybody’s got a life of their own here and they choose to be in the Cornbread band. They don’t only choose to be in it. They choose to work in it, to make it work. This is what’s happening here.”
The conversation goes on, various cats tossing in their two cents, all of them having a good time reminiscing as they hunker down to a late dinner, nonchalant, wisecracking, digging one another’s company. You soon realize it’s the same chemistry that was onstage. “It makes the music better. Because, just like we’re a unit, we’re tighter than that in the music.”
There’s more back and forth about the good old days as Harris hopscotches from one tale to another, switching sometimes mid-story like changing keys in the middle of a song. At length, I leave him to his meal, say my goodbyes all around the table.
Heading out the door, it’s been a privileged pleasure to enjoy this premiere artist while we still have him.
Cornbread Harris plays Loring Pasta Bar, 327 – 14th Avenue SE., Mpls., Fridays from 6-10 pm, and Hell’s Kitchen, 80 South 9th Street, Mpls., on Saturdays from 6-10 pm. For more info, visit www.cornbreadenterprizes.com.