Jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Lafayette Harris, Jr. is among the most respected session and touring musicians on the scene. He possesses an extreme rhythmic vitality coupled with considerable harmonic depth. He doesn’t often engage in delivering flashy lines or rapid-fire tempos, but he always displays fine — even elegant — phrasing, a passionate flair, and extensive knowledge of the jazz tradition, classic pop repertoire, and an intimate familiarity with soul and funk. These qualities have made him a go-to pianist for dozens of musicians ranging from Max Roach (with whom he worked as pianist and arranger for seven years) and Ernestine Anderson to Roswell Rudd and Houston Person. His debut album, Lafayette Is Here, appeared on Muse in 1995 to critical acclaim. In 1996, the pianist hit Broadway: He played for and conducted the award-winning hit Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. Harris started his own Airmen label in 1997 and in 1998 issued Lafayette Is Here: Solo. It was voted one of the best recordings of the year by Cadence Magazine. He made Roach’s acquaintance in 1997 when they collaborated with the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir. They worked together until 2005 — the same year Harris began his working relationship with trombonist Roswell Rudd. Harris’ 2006 date, In the Middle of the Night, was an acclaimed foray into funk and contemporary jazz. Given how busy Harris was, 2008’s Trio Talk would be his last outing as a leader until 2015’s Bend to the Light with Lonnie Plaxico and Willie Jones III. 2016’s Hangin’ with the Big Boys featured Person (whose quartet the pianist had just joined) and Jazzmeia Horn. Harris’ Savant debut, You Can’t Lose with the Blues, appeared in early 2020.
Harris was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1963. He began his musical career with private lessons and playing in church. By the time he was in high school, he was playing in popular local bands that covered all the classic R&B and funk hits of the day. He formulated the staunch work ethic that made him such a journeyman later on. This is evidenced by the fact that Harris had already devoted himself privately to jazz after hearing fellow Baltimore native Eubie Blake play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Harris’ goal at the time was to perfect it. He augmented the live work with hard study: Harris attended and received a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin Conservatory and studied with master pianist Kenny Barron at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he earned his master’s degree in Jazz Performance.
Moving to New York in the mid-’80s, Harris met and studied with Barry Harris. As a sideman, he worked in well-established clubs like the Blue Note, Sweet Basil, and Fat Tuesdays, and because of his sublime rhythmic and melodic ensemble interplay, he garnered a reputation as a musician to watch. He earned his first record deal with Muse, resulting in Lafayette Is Here, his 1993 debut offering featuring trumpeter Terrell Stafford, saxophonist Don Braden, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Cindy Blackman (nee Santana). A second Muse outing, 1996’s Happy Together, featured his trio with Melba Moore. In 1995, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk began its run at the Public Theater’s Newman Theatre and left for Broadway in 1996. Harris won the role of the orchestra’s associate conductor and keyboardist. He has since created an excellent Broadway resume that includes work on The Color Purple.
Harris was a regular on the European jazz festival touring circuit. He played in bands led by Slide Hampton and vocalist Barbara Morrison. In 1997 Barron introduced Max Roach to his former student. The great drummer was seeking a musical director for a collaboration with Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir and Harris got the gig. The project worked so well, they took it to London and Paris as well. (The pair worked together until 2005.) Harris formed his own Airmen label in 1998 and issued Lafayette Is Here: Solo; it was voted one of the year’s best recordings by Cadence Magazine. So busy with other projects was he, Harris didn’t record as a leader again for eight years. He also made regular appearances at New York’s Blue Note, and led a weekly open mike session at the historic Lenox Lounge in Harlem — widely regarded as the “best vocal jam session” in the city by New York’s weekly listing guides — for a solid decade.
In 2000, Harris joined guitarist Mark Whitfield’s Soul Conversation and cut The Jazz Channel Presents Mark Whitfield & JK (Soul Conversation) for Herbie Hancock’s Transparent Music label. In 2003, he began a recording and touring relationship with Grammy-nominated singer Ernestine Anderson. He appeared on her Love Makes the Changes that year, and worked the road with her regularly, particularly in Europe. The following year, Harris joined his friend Reggie Woods’ popular band Soul Street in Morocco to play a New Year’s Eve bash hosted by the nation’s King Al-Hassan. In 2005, Harris debuted a new trio at the Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany; it included bassist Dwane Dolphin and drummer Winard Harper. That group became his touring band and later his studio ensemble. He also toured with Sandra Reaves-Phillips, who he had worked with on occasion between 1989 and 1994. That same year, in November, Harris met trombonist Roswell Rudd and played his first gig with him. In 2006, he was a member of Anita O’Day’s studio band for Indestructible, her final recording session.
In the Middle of the Night, Harris’ first recording since 1998, marked a change of pace: it delved head on into contemporary jazz, funk, and soulful pop. Its cast included Donald Harrison, Jr., Alyson Williams, Stafford, Ben Butler, and more. The following year he worked the road with Rudd and Reaves-Phillips. He appeared with the trombonist at the Newport Jazz Festival along with vocalist Sunny Kim and bassist Brad Jones. He also toured with Anderson and Frank Wess. The acclaimed Harris-led Trio Talk with Harper and Dolphin appeared in 2008, as did Harris’ first recorded appearance with Rudd’s quartet on Keep Your Heart Right from Sunnyside. It would be another seven years before the pianist recorded under his own name again.
Harris toured with Anderson, and Reaves-Phillips, among others. In 2009 he appeared on Anderson’s A Song for You in 2009, and on Nightlife in 2011.
During the latter year, he was touring and recording with Rudd’s quartet, which had just released The Incredible Honk. For the next three years, Harris toured and held down headline gigs at New York clubs like Small’s. In 2014, he undertook a Kickstarter campaign to fund his next outing. Arriving in 2015, Bend to the Light included Plaxico, Jones III, percussionist Thomas Dyani, and featured a guest spot by Jazzmeia Horn on a vocal version of the set’s title track. It might be the only album in jazz history to include tunes by Herbie Nichols and Luther Vandross. In 2016, Harris followed with uncharacteristic quickness: He released Hangin’ with the Big Boys, an all-star date that included Person, Horn, Will Terrill, George Delancey, Antoine Drye, and Caleb Curtis. It was, at least for the foreseeable future, his final album on Airmen.
In 2017, Harris made his recorded debut with Person’s group — with whom he had been touring for years — on Rain or Shine. The set’s personnel also included Warren Vache and Rodney Jones. Rudd made Embrace that year, his second recording for RareNoise. His band included Harris, bassist Ken Filiano, and vocalist Fay Victor, and it drew some of best reviews of the trombonist’s career. Rudd died that December. After his death, Harris spent most of his time teaching and playing club gigs though he still made it to Europe for the festival season and worked with Person’s group. In 2019, he cut his Savant debut, You Can’t Lose with the Blues, leading a trio whose other personnel included bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. The set was released in January of 2020.