It figures that after teaching a daylong music clinic, pianist Barry Harris would give a textbook performance. Harris' appearance with drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Kevin O'Neal on Saturday as part of the Jazz for Youth Festival at the Vision Theatre in Leimert Park was a study in touch, temper and historical influence.
The event, a benefit for Leimert Park's World Stage performance space where Harris had worked with aspiring musicians earlier in the day, contrasted a number of emerging musicians with such seasoned professionals as Harris, Higgins and pianist Horace Tapscott. The evening's most resounding lesson came when 28-year-old Robert Stewart, a saxophonist who went on to Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and a major-label recording contract after releasing his initial album on World Stage records, joined Harris' trio to demonstrate his surprising maturity.
Though long associated with the bebop movement and the intense play of Bud Powell, Harris showed himself to be a more relaxed stylist than Powell and other beboppers, carefully controlling speed and dynamics to emphasize the pretty side of a tune.
Opening with "Time After Time," he played with crisp, lithe phrasing, moving between lean right-hand phrases and more involved, two-handed harmonics. He frequently staggered the notes in a chord, emphasizing certain individual tones to denote their role in the harmony. His restrained volume was complemented by Higgins' equally crisp brushwork.
Harris expanded his sound during a medley of Thelonious Monk tunes, using longer lines and a bit of mischief to carry "Ruby, My Dear" and "Well You Needn't." The pianist never abandoned his role of instructor. After setting up one tune with a series of descending notes, he told the 200 or so in attendance, "That's the way Monk would do it. Now here's the way we do it."
Later, poet and World Stage co-founder Kamau Daaood read his lyric "Army of Healers" with responsive backing from Higgins, pianist Tapscott, saxophonist Michael Session, trombonist Phil Ranelin and bassist Brandon Owens. Owens returned with the Young World Stage All Stars, an impressive combo of up-and-comers who work on their craft at the Stage. The evening opened with the Los Angeles Multi-High School Big Band under the direction of Reggie Andrews. The band's long set, though short of polish, showed plenty of promise.