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Key Player

A conversation with Vermont jazz icon James Harvey


Published April 8, 2009 at 10:06 a.m.

James Harvey
  • James Harvey

As I sink deeply into a chair in the living room of James Harvey’s Old North End apartment, the noted keyboardist not-so-discreetly whisks away a small revolver that had been resting on the coffee table between us. Perhaps sensing my unease, he assures me, “Oh. I was just cleaning it.” He smiles before adding, “I don’t usually make a habit of shooting journalists.” Whew.

This is my first impression of one of Vermont’s legendary jazz musicians. He’s known throughout the Green Mountains and beyond as an elite player and composer, and the soft-spoken, mercurial pianist is highly regarded in jazz circles, having studied with the likes of Cecil Taylor. But to the population at large, the Vermont native is still an enigma.

For most of his career, Harvey’s bread and butter was not the piano but the trombone. But for much of his life, he was also a drug addict and lost several teeth some years ago. “I had a car with four wheels,” he explains. “One was cocaine, another was heroin. Crack. And sometimes booze.” Sadly, even with dentures, he can no longer play the instrument that he carried around the country in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, Don Cherry, Phish and others.

Harvey “got clean” 13 years ago, when he began practicing Buddhism. This Saturday, he gives a rare solo jazz piano performance at the Elley-Long Music Center.

Seven Days: So, tell me about the show.

James Harvey: Well, this show’s gonna be different in that, unlike most of my solo piano shows, I’m going to be doing mostly my own compositions. I realized in the course of practicing for this that the reason I usually don’t do my own compositions is because they’re too goddamned hard. (Laughs.) They’re not really meant to be played just on solo piano. They’re meant to be played by a full band.

I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to use the Steinway at St. Paul’s Cathedral. So I’ve been going over there to practice several days a week. That’s been very helpful, since I don’t have a grand piano here and usually I’m just kind of thrown into situations where [I’m not] able to touch one for months, if not years.

SD: That must be a unique challenge, to scale back compositions to accommodate solo piano.

JH: Obviously there’s a lot of stuff you just can’t do. I mean, most of them are meant to have drums, you know? I have to simplify the bass lines sometimes. I just don’t have enough fingers to be playing most of this stuff. Because it’s meant for — usually at the least — a six-piece band. Three horns, three rhythm. So there’s a certain amount of scaling back that has to happen.

But the other thing is that there’s just a lot of stuff I’m not even going to try to tackle. I’ve just got to locate what’s doable and then do it and make it into a balanced program, which I think will be possible.

SD: How do you decide what stays and what goes?

JH: I haven’t quite decided yet. At first there were a few things that I thought, “You’re never going to be able to do this. It’s just impossible.” But after hammering away at them for the last couple of weeks, I’ve decided that they’re doable. They’re not easily doable, but they’re doable.

It’s just sort of a process of working out some more ideas. Working out areas of fluidity, of fluency, whatever you want to call it. And I’ll probably throw in a few things by other people. But the point of this concert really was to do a recording … Because I’d hoped I’d be able to record this concert last year at the FlynnSpace. As it turned out, there was a technical problem we couldn’t surmount. And I don’t want to be shelling out royalties to people who are long dead. So it just made more sense to do my own music. I think people would be more interested in that anyway.

SD: Why this material now?

JH: Frankly, there’s not much of any place to play jazz in Burlington anymore. Or any place else, for that matter, in Vermont. And a lot of the most important guys, as far as my band was concerned, left town. So there’s no real way to keep a real, working sextet going in this atmosphere.

Since Red Square changed owners, a lot of other stuff happened around that time … I was just looking to get out of the music business. But then the guy I was painting houses for decided to retire. So here I am, back in the music business. (Laughs.)

SD: You sound a little reluctant about that.

JH: I really don’t care for it. I don’t like promoting myself. I don’t like sitting here writing press releases about how “great” I am. It’s a bunch of bullshit. (Laughs.) I know the musicians. I know who’s great and who isn’t that great, you know? I’m good. Maybe I’m great sometimes, I don’t know. But, if I am, it’s not my job to be telling people about it.

SD: I guess that’s my job, right?

JH: (Laughs.) Whatever you think! Whatever you think.