At the Keys: Jeffrey D. Harris

Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris is currently music directing for the show A Long and Winding Road starring Maureen McGovern at Arena.  (It plays through Sunday evening and is terrific!)

Like many, I was first introduced to Harris’s work on McGovern’s Another Woman in Love CD, arranging and playing.  He has also composed the music for a number of classic McGovern tunes including Why Can’t I Forget?, and The Same Moon.

1.      By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I, primarily …, my head is the composer head.  And I’ve been composing a lot less over the last two years, which is a source of consternation for me, for a variety of reasons.  But I still see everything as more of a composer, and I trained more as a composer, but I’ve always worked as a pianist… I’ve always worked on everything.  And there was one point in my life where I had an agent who said “you’re getting to be too known as a musical director, you need to just be a composer if you want to get a show on Broadway.” 

And so I tried for a while just to be a composer, and it was the worst thing I ever did.  For some reason, I need all those things I did – all those things I do – exactly what you just mentioned (except the business part).  I need all those things to work together for me to get any of it done.  Even if I’m writing, I still need to be working as a pianist, I still need to be working as an orchestrator, I do a lot of conducting.  So I sort of come at things from a composer’s standpoint.  And I think it forms what I do as a pianist because there’s a lot of pianists who are very much “piano players” – they play all over the keys and it’s all about pianistics, and for me, the piano just happens to be the instrument I play to make the music.

2.      Who have your major musical influences been?

An eclectic bunch.  I wanted to be Burt Bachrach in the worst way – and so he was one of those people who did everything we just mentioned.  And when I was growing up and was ten, eleven years old – that was really the time he was at his height and I’d watch his special on TV and he’d sit at the piano, and he was conducting, and he was playing, and he had written the orchestrations of the song, and he would actually sing a little bit (which I also do).  And that to me, that was it!  So I also go toward those kind of people that do it all, the Andre Previns, the Leonard Bernsteins.

So I love those people, but aside from them I’ve also been influenced classically by the American 20th Century composers – Barber, Ned Rorem.  I was a composition major in college so I went through all that and was writing serious music for a little bit.  And I love Copeland, and I love a lot of the 20th Century British composers like Vaughn Williams and Finzi and some of those people.  But then in the pop music world, I loved Jimmy Webb; I love Michel LeGrand.  And then I have a big jazz influence.  So it’s really eclectic.  And I tend to go for really obscure people.  I always go for the really obscure ones, not the typical ones.  So instead of Oscar Peterson, I really like the pianist named Roger Kellaway.  I did love Bill Evans; he was a big influence on me as a pianist.  

(Later in the interview)

I also love Randy Newman, who you can put on that list.  And I didn’t list any theater composers like Sondheim and Richard Rodgers.

3.      What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

I can think of two.  One’s very funny.  Actually two are very funny and I have one more serious moment.

The two really funny moments are I played at the White House twice and once was with Karen Akers.  We were playing and she was so nervous that she skipped over an entire section of the song.  And she skipped a section and modulated where there was no modulation.  And we’re playing for the president of the United States!  And I didn’t have what she was doing on the music.  I literally had to fly by the seat of my pants and start to go where it was that she was, and make up the new key.  And we got through it well enough that when I mentioned it to her afterwards, as we were meeting like the President of Poland and the President, and I said, “What happened?”  And she said… “There was no modulation and I just modulated with you,” and she just couldn’t believe it.  So that was fun… Always things like that, but when it happens at the White House on the White House Steinway piano!  That’s something.

And another that’s really silly, if you’ll indulge me, because I love to tell this story.  When I was first starting out in my career I was working … (with) Jack Jones and he used to tell this ridiculous joke.  He’d tell it every night.  And he recorded it on a live album, so already people have heard the joke.  For years, but he would still tell the joke… He’d say, “I was working in this club and I said to the club owner, ‘This piano is terrible. I can’t work on this piano. And my pianist is unhappy.’ And the club manager says, ‘Whaddaya mean, we just had it painted!'”  Right?  So, we’re working down in Puerto Rico and I’m like 22 years old with Jack and we’re with a big band and we’re playing and we just finish the end of the show and just as I cut off the band, he just starts to walk off.  I cut off the band, and the back leg of the grand piano collapses, and the piano comes crashing down – and you cannot believe how loud it is.  And he comes running back onstage after it happens and he goes, “How can that have happened – he just had it painted!”  That was one of my favorite moments – those are the two funny ones.  

And I actually think, to tell you the truth (I know this sounds like I’m selling the show), but I’m really having a wonderful time right now doing this show now with Maureen.  Because I have so much to do with it.  I’ve worked with Maureen since I graduated from college.  It was the first job I ever had and we worked together on and off…. And when I’ve worked with her, I’ve maybe done half the arrangements and Mike Renzi did the other half or someone else.  But now I suddenly have everything to do with this show, and it’s very much musically from my point of view.  So that’s very satisfying.

 4.      What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

I don’t know quite how to answer that,… but the first thing I go to is that because I started working with Maureen McGovern right out of college, in a way it spoiled me for working with every other singer.  Because she is, as a musician, the perfect musician.  And she sings perfectly in tune, as you know.  And her time is perfect.  Her diction is perfect.  She’s not the kind of singer where she brings this very odd, quirky personality to the song (which I also appreciate in singers), but she is for me as a pianist and for me as a composer (because she’s recorded 15 or 16 of my songs), she’s the perfect instrument.  So whenever I deal with other singers, and I’ve worked with a lot of other singers, it’s always frustrating, because I literally can’t understand why can’t you do that ?  I get frustrated because I’m so used to that.  And because I’ve worked with Maureen so long, I haven’t worked with a lot of other singers, hand-holding them and teaching them note-by-note.  She literally comes in totally prepared, basically perfect from the get-go.

I mean her whole life is about singing.  So I was used to that.  I come in, she’s perfect, we find it, we’re done.  And then I’ll work with singers who are not such good musicians, and it’s frustrating and I’m not so good in that way.  I’m not a “coach” and so I’ve been very spoiled.  Lucky!  But very spoiled my whole life.

5.      Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

I do both.  It depends, it depends.  It really changes.  I don’t know if it’s on a whim.  Sometimes I’ll do taped pages, open accordion style with the (piano) rack down.  But then when I do more theatrical things – and you know I do a lot of shows.  A lot of Broadway shows, I was just the associate musical director of Gypsy with Patti LuPone – and on shows like that I’ll organize things.  Even at Gypsy, they had it accordion style, but I chose to do the hole punch, put it in a binder, and just do it that way.  For some reason, when I get in a show, and even now with Maureen it’s this one-woman show, it’s theatrical – I’m back to the binder.  When I’m doing something, more jazz oriented, I go back to the rack down, accordion style open flat.

6.      What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

Greatest need in the world of cabaret? 

I think better musicianship.  When I go hear a lot of singers, when I go hear singers in cabarets and things I’m shocked sometimes not only of the quality of the singing but the quality of the piano, of the musical directing.  And I think musicians are getting so good these days – I mean we’re all spoiled with recordings and computers and all that that everything’s just getting to a higher level.

And sometimes it’s… Although I know cabaret is where you try out things so sometimes it’s a little, you’re going by the seat of your pants.  But sometimes cabaret – you know I hate to tell you this because you’re so into cabaret and I’m not, I’m not really into cabaret.  I much more enjoy concerts and I enjoy recordings and I enjoy theater.  And when I go to cabaret I’m often disappointed because I don’t think it’s on a very high level, and at least for me, I’m interested in the musicianship.  And maybe that’s not where you find it.  There are things in cabaret that are really fun but it doesn’t interest me like going to hear some great… like going to hear Keith Jarrett play piano.  But that’s just a quirky little thing… I have a very narrow, little world I live in, I’m afraid.

+1 Generally, when expanding a concert like this for a “theatrical” presentation, the instinct would be to add musicians and expand the band.  Could you please discuss the decision to keep the show to a piano, and how your work had to change, if at all, to go from a cabaret to a more theatrical interpretation?

It has.  Just tempo-wise. I’ve had to bump things up because theatrically things do not work as well when they’re at “concert” tempo.  I think you can luxuriate in a concert and just close your eyes and listen to the music, but in a theater piece, everything has to have that, that forward motion to it.  That’s why I think the greatest theater conductor is Paul Gemigniani, and … everything’s got a little push to it.  When you sit back too far on it, like a jazz musician would, on stage it does not work.  I tried it and it just doesn’t work.  So tempo-wise everything’s being pushed, just a little bit.

I think as far as the musicians largely it was financial.  I think Maureen’s hope, maybe, is that this could go to Off-Broadway or Broadway, or certainly Off-Broadway, and if there was a budget, certainly we could add musicians.  I think we’re still in the development stage here, and I think if we had orchestrations to worry about it would certainly be prohibitive.  And suddenly she’s got the right show at the right time, at a time when the economy is poor, and suddenly theaters seem to be very interested in a one-person show.  Particularly with just a pianist.  And … having said all that, I think there’s something very special that people seem to get from just Maureen and I together.  I think because we’ve spent thirty years together, almost. 

( Photo by Eric Antoniou)


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