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Interview with Ratzo Harris: Bass Lines and the Bottom Line

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Ratzo B. Harris is a 1995 Thelonious Monk Competition semi-finalist and past contributing columnist for Bass Player Magazine. He’s considered an innovative bassist who has worked with some of the greatest musicians of our time. John Handy, Charles Lloyd, Joey Lovano, Jon Hendricks, Ted Curson, Tim Berne, Betty Carter, Helen Merrill, Les Paul, Joanne Brackeen, Joe Henderson, Jim Pepper and Betty Buckley are just a few of the artists who have collaborated with him. I’ve heard him repeatedly and his playing is muscular, a rebar of sonic foundation, yet sinuous and subtle. From the heartbeat of free jazz, to aural filigrees on jazz standards, he’s at the top of his game. Ratzo Harris plays bass that’s living root and steel girder. This is our conversation:

1. Which musicians influence your approach, set the bar? Who do you listen to for pleasure? How would you contrast your style with your contemporaries?

(a) People I’m performing with are my strongest influences. A global bar comes with the performance situation and is set by those organizing it or by stylistic considerations. A personal bar, what I call a job well done, is related to my most recent performances.
(b) I rarely listen to music for pleasure, although I take pleasure in listening to music. I like things I’ve never heard before, especially if extended techniques are involved.
(c) I express my ideas through sonic density.

2. Describe the influence of the Midwest on your playing. How have the Midwest and the music emerging from its roots influenced jazz?

(a) The term “Midwest” is too generic for describing geographical influence. The musical heritage of Indianapolis is distinct from that of Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, or Kansas City and so their musicians access different roots. I was born in Indianapolis and paid more attention to “Naptown” players when I was starting: Leroy Vinnegar, Freddie Hubbard, the Montgomery brothers, J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Benny Barth, Eugene Folks, John Bunch and Claude Sifferlin. But my most formative years were spent in San Francisco; so the influence is seminal, not primary.

(b) Joplin, Beiderbecke, Bird, Miles, Kenton, Brookmeyer, Christian, Carmichael, Hawkins, McShann, Goodman, Tatum, the Jones brothers, Don Cherry, Jon Hendricks, Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Chet Baker, Albert Ayler and Andrew Hill; all from the Midwest. The Basie band and the AACM were formed in the Midwest. These are just a few ground-breaking jazz musicians that exemplify the region’s influence. Although academia suggests otherwise, jazz did not originate solely in New Orleans; much of its roots are Midwestern.

5. What would you say about the idea that jazz is part of the American mainstream? What about the analysis that root music has been co-opted by more modern forms (i.e. jazz, rock, & pop)?

(a) Jazz created the current American mainstream. Ironically, it’s assimilation into the American Culture Machine that originally rejected still marginalizes it; so, its original subtext of social egalitarianism is assuaged. But I think the pendulum will (pun intended) “swing” around and, as jazz works its way into the core of the Machine, improve it. It’s probably happening now.

(b) I was fortunate to befriend saxophonist Jim Pepper when I started out. We played at the 1976 Native Arts Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, and I was introduced to root music by the Tikigak Dance Troop of Point Hope. I’m finally learning to express it without compromising my identity. Jazz, its African American relates (funk, rock, hip-hop, etc.) and, especially, “Latin” music co-opts elements of root music – irregular rhythms and non-tempered scales, for example.

6. What are some of your current projects/collaborations? What generates your interest?

(a) A trio with hyper-pianist Denman Maroney and drummer Bob Meyer, Alt.Timers. We’re finishing a CD that includes “Hamlet,” my composition that focuses on aspects of root music.

Composer/pianist/vocalist Cynthia Hilt’s nine-piece group, Lyric Fury. We just finished a month-long engagement at Miles Café in New York.

An electro-acoustic group with saxophonist Hayes Greenfield and percussionist Todd Turkisher. We just played the 21st-Century Schizoid Music series at Cornelia Street June 27 and play Wednesdays at Queen’s Vic in New York.

A CD with saxophonist Dave Schnitter, trumpeter Herb Robertson and drummer Jay Rosen for CIMP records.

Pianist/composer David Lopato, a long-term associate. We’ll be at the University of the Streets July 19.

Vocalist Elli Fordyce who, at 73, is still growing musically and as a performer. We’ll be playing selected dates with her partner, Jim Malloy, at The Garage in New York for the rest of the year.

A trio with trombonist Deborah Weisz and drummer Eric Halverson. We’ll be at University of the Streets July 26.

Pianist Sarah Jane Cion’s trio. We’ll be at the Knickerbocker in New York August 5.

A blog about improvised music at NewMusicBox.org.

A book about Jim Pepper. The biographical information about him in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and the Encyclopedia of Native American Music (and even liner notes to his albums) is severely flawed. I’m writing something more accurate about his life and, particularly, about his music.

I still playing bass for Mose Allison when he’s in New York – I think.

(b) Originality, respect for music, and passion about playing generates my interest. Many musicians are just about work. While I don’t have problems with making money from playing, I do with lackadaisical attitudes. Betty Carter once told me, “who said this is gonna be EASY?” I’m committed to playing at the best of my abilities—all the time, not just for the big gigs. Part of that commitment is allowing those I’m playing with to do the same. It doesn’t matter if I’m accompanying or leading.

I’ve also gotten to a point where I pretty much bring my own voice to the situation. But, I’m still growing as a musician, still finding new things to do. When someone calls me for that, I’m interested.

7. Tell us something that’s not in the official bio.

I’m recovering from early-onset Diogenes Syndrome.

For more info on this artist, go to ratzobharris.com.

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About Lisa Alvarado

  • Damn, This is the kind of no-nonsense interview that echoes your straight-ahead poetry. Ratso Harris is fine and dandy, indeed, though I’ve heard, on YouTube, only “Inner Urge” with the Joe Henderson Quartet in Italy 1983. I love that early onset Diogenes syndrome: we should all be so lucky to be blessed with such early “affliction.”