Harris and company bring that swing

You can practice all you like — and Rappahannock’s own famous jazz pianist Bill Harris practices more than probably anyone you know. But, in the end, if it ain’t got that swing . . . well, you know the rest.

This Saturday night (Sept. 19) at 7, however, when the Flint Hill musician will be joined by three of his favorite jazz all-stars under the big tent next to the Flint Hill fire hall for a fire company fundraising concert-dance, it will definitely (with apologies to Tony Bennett) mean a thing.

Pianist Bill Harris performs with an all-star jazz quartet for a Sept. 19 fundraising dance at the Flint Hill fire hall.
Pianist Bill Harris performs with an all-star jazz quartet for a Sept. 19 fundraising dance at the Flint Hill fire hall. Paula Endo

During a brief sit-down at something other than a piano last week, Harris says he’s looking forward to the evening of playing, and singing, an extensive list of jazz, swing, samba and bossa nova favorites with his friends — bassist Tommy Cecil, guitarist Donato Soviero and drummer Tony Martucci. All of them, Harris included, not only possess advanced degrees in swing, but being in each other’s company, over the past 35 years, tends to exaggerate the effect.

It is worth noting here that swing, a technical musical term denoting the absence of stiffness, is also something trees have done since the beginning of time — mostly to keep from snapping in a storm.

And storms, of course, are things that happen to everyone — lately including the 60-year-old Harris, who lost his father last month, and went through an awful scare just last week when his 92-year-old mother nearly died during surgery to repair an injured knee, awakening miraculously the next day, apparently no worse for the wear.

All of which, Harris says, makes you appreciate all the more life’s many and multiplying challenges — and what they do to strengthen one’s ability to swing. Musically and otherwise.

“Pain and suffering have a way of adding a lot of . . . soul to your musical expression,” Harris says. “I think I play better, and sing better, now than I ever have in my whole life.”

In the past year or two, Harris has further challenged himself — to sing, and sing well — and says he’s thereby found new love and appreciation for the art, as much as the science, of jazz, in particular for much of the genre that’s come out of Brazil over the last century or so.

Not long after sending a YouTube link to a deceptively off-the-cuff, on-the-edge studio performance by Brazilian vocalist Anna Setton, with pianist Evaldo Soares, Harris arrives at the office to talk about Saturday’s show. But first, he wants to amplify what appealed to him so much about the Setton-Soares performance, among others by, for example, pianist Bill Evans (a lifelong influence of his) and bassist Scott LaFaro.

“There is an exquisite revealing of the soul in honest performances by [such] passionate, gifted musicians,” he says. “It is irresistibly touching to listen to.”

Such direct and intimate performances, Harris says, give him “incredible inspiration and motivation to add more to the world,” and represent “a feeling which is born of love — God, perfection . . . the essence of art in humanity.”

Speaking again of Setton, he says: “She’s not a perfect singer, but that’s as close to perfectly honest as you can get — and that’s what conveys a song, if you sing from your gut, and you pronounce the words . . . it brings an enormous amount to the audience. Every time I sing these days, people tell me, ‘Bill, you need to sing more often.’ ”

This Saturday, at the fire department benefit organized by Merry Moo Market’s Gail Reardon, Harris will sing — and sing often.

And swing often. He has brought with him today a looseleaf binder of charts and lyrics, and pages through it the way kids used to with baseball cards, so you know they almost have all the good ones — in this case, among many others, Tommy Dorsey’s “How About You,” Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “All of You,” Bruno Martino’s “Estate,” Mancini’s “Charade,” and such unlikely swing candidates, in less capable hands, as “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

The tunes’ tempos are handwritten on each sheet. Harris smiles engagingly. “Most of them are above 100,” he says, referring to beats per minute.

Another technical musical term, meaning: On Saturday in Flint Hill, you will swing.

Harris plans to heed, as well as sing, words the rest of those words that Mr. Bennett made familiar:

It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or it’s hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got

Swing time (and place)

Harris and company perform from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 19) on the carnival grounds at Flint Hill fire hall. Light snacks, cold drinks, wine and beer available for purchase (table seating is available, but you’re welcome to bring folding chairs; you’re not, however, welcome to bring in your own alcoholic beverages). Tickets ($35) at Merry Moo Market (540-827-4711 or cfsiva@aol.com), Settle’s, Farmer’s Coop, Sperryville Corner Store, Mayhugh’s, Rappahannock Cellars and the Black Bear Bistro in Warrenton.