Friday evening, Corey Harris made his appearance onstage at the Blues Alley jazz club and greeted the cheering crowd as he tuned his guitar. Accompanying him were his bassist, saxophone player, drummer and piano player. The venue – a small, well-decorated and dimly lit hole-in-the-wall joint right off of Wisconsin Ave – is a “listening club,” where people can come for dinner and drinks as they watch the night’s performances. Blues Alley is labeled a jazz venue, but regularly draws musicians of all trades – from classical pianists to opera singers to country artists. Harris himself is a self-labeled “reggae-rasta-blues” performer, and successfully lived up to the title with the percussion and polyrhythm featured in his pieces, with the influences of early jazz clear in his work.
In one particularly notable and memorable piece, Harris announced, “This one’s for the people at Standing Rock,” before launching into an emotionally-driven song about indigenous people’s right to their land and the oppressive overbearing nature of the government; in the chorus he crooned about the “Redman.” “Troubled times here in DC,” he noted during one brief intermission as he fiddled with his ukulele. The crowd whooped in agreement. In a more humorous piece, Harris sang about a thrifty and cunning woman named Frannie, filling in the quick strums with syncopated beats of percussion. All of Harris’ songs were filled with genuine passion, whether the subject matter was politically driven or more lighthearted. With every piece in the set list, Harris and all of the members of his band worked in unison with no one sound dominating. In a way, this brought to mind the style of collective improvisation heard in early Dixieland jazz of the early 20th century. However, in many other parts of the performance, Harris’ incredibly talented saxophone player took center stage, belting out multiple long and complex solos. Often, the band would pause for a break to let a saxophone riff stand out.
The technique and mastery of style that Harris and his band had over the sound was admirable, but the most impressive aspect of the night’s performance was the clear joy and enthusiasm that the performers had for the music.
If you’re not familiar with Harris’ music, you can listen to his 2013 album, Fulton Blues, below, or find more of his genius on Spotify.