Originally a trumpet player, Harris started studying piano in junior-high school with teacher Charles Little. Little (one of the dedicatees of "BBBB") was a towering figure in the Lexington music-education program, and he inspired Harris to become a teacher as well. But at Morehead State, Harris was introduced to jazz by a teacher who gave him a Charlie Parker piece to study. It was brutally hard. Harris was starting jazz late, but he was hooked. A cousin studying at Berklee said to him, "If you love playing jazz piano, you have to come up to Boston."
As many musicians who come here have found, there was plenty to learn outside the classroom. For a while, Harris was the house pianist at Thursday Afro-Cuban nights at Wally's. "I was hearing these musicians play Monk with guaguancó, rumba, son. But there was always a jazz tune that I knew on top of it." The great Cuban musician Francisco Mela happened to be the drummer. "I fell in love with all those rhythms, and Cuban culture in general, through those guys. You fall in love with a type of music because people you know are playing it."
There's a bit of the Afro-Latin influence on Museum Vol. 1. Harris's instrumental arrangement of "You Are My Sunshine" recalls for a moment George Russell's version of the song, but Harris had never heard it. Instead, he says, he was looking for something that could accommodate the Brazilian baião rhythm. "I'm a concept person," says Harris. "If I need to practice something, then I put it in a song. Then I have to practice it." It also happened to be a song that he and his wife, Luisa, love, and it's dedicated to her.
On Museum Vol. 1, Harris also sings for the first time — an agitated arrangement of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," but delivered with a kind of casual intimacy. "I'm not a jazz singer, and I probably never will be. But the message of the song gives you some courage to sing."
Still, what unifies the album is that serene flow. Maybe it all comes down to those Kentucky roots. "If the music is swinging, there's something about it that reminds me of home."
KEVIN HARRIS PROJECT :: Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St, Cambridge :: February 16 :: 7:30 pm :: $20 :: 617.395.7757 or regattabarjazz.com