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The Gospel of Gospel: Embracing the Good

Niki Haris’ Vail Jazz Party performance is all about finding one’s goodness

Those unversed in gospel music might view it as a purely Christian genre … a style of music geared toward praising the lord and clapping for Jesus. But really, gospel is a music that speaks to everyone, regardless of religion, faith or belief system. Witnessing a performance like Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ delivers an individual experience for each person, an experience that involves tapping into one’s deepest, glowing core.

“Everybody has a spirit and that’s what gospel speaks to, the individual spirit … the goodness of an individual,” says Denver KUVO radio’s “Gospel Train” presenter Deborah Walker, who also hosts Niki Haris’ Vail performance, which takes place Sept. 1 at Gerald Ford Amphitheater as part of the 25th Anniversary edition of the Vail Jazz Party.

“Some people don’t call it God or Jesus. It’s that individual goodness you’re speaking to,” Walker says. “The music is bringing them into the oneness of what that goodness is.”

Haris herself refers to this simply as “the light.”

“That’s what’s so great about [the Vail Jazz Party gospel performance]. It’s the one moment when people let their guard down and open their arms up. People might say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ They might say, ‘I don’t go to church.’ I say, whatever gets you to the light,” Haris says.

Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day weekend, hence its transfer this year to the big stage at Ford Amphitheater.

A back-up vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has brought her to still more global stages and her recordings, ranging in genre from gospel to pop, R&B to funk, have topped Billboard charts.

“I’m really lucky after doing the celebrity, award-driven pop show stuff, I get to go all over the world and reach people in a deep place,” Haris says. “I get to go to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and do concerts to build non-violent centers. I get to do music that tends to change people ‘s lives in a way that’s more than just coming to a concert. My music is not just soulful, it’s soul-filled.”

Walker, whose mother was a gospel singer and who herself sang in a church choir, has lived and breathe various forms of gospel music all of her life. Of all the performances she’s hosted or witnessed, she says that Haris possesses a unique ability to reach audiences on an individual level.

“It’s her ability to be who she is and connect with the audience. She gives so much of herself,” Walker says. “I’m not saying that other artists don’t do that, but the way she connects is special. She’s not preach-y. She’s not church-y. She’s spirit-filled. She’s speaking to individual people. Even though they might not go to church, their beliefs might be different, everybody loves that good-feel music. Everybody loves to feel good. That’s what Niki brings. That’s what gospel Sunday does. It gives you that feel good spirit.”

Walker says that every year she’s hosted Haris’ Vail show, before the singer steps on stage, she collects all of her band members, which includes a musical army of the Mile Hi Gospel Choir plus nine of the Vail Jazz Party’s top musicians, into a huddle.

“I could be out there talking, talking, talking and they will be back there in a unity of oneness, of prayer, bringing it all together,” Walker says. “Niki always has that moment of holding hands, uniting the musicians together. I think a lot of artists do that. That’s what I was saying … about what gospel is. They might perform or perfect their performance in other genres of music – jazz or R & B – but when they were developing, when they first knew they had talent, it’s because they were able to tap into their inner spirit.”

In general terms, gospel can be described as musicians tapping into this spirit and sendig it outward. The experience, according to Haris, is one of both shining and absorbing light.

“It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world,” Haris says. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on.”

Sept. 1 Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’

Join vocalist Niki Haris, The Mile Hi Gospel Choir and a cast of top Vail Jazz Party musicians at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1 at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for a stomping, clapping, feel-good live music experience. Tickets start at $50 ($5 for students and audience members 18 years and younger).

Not-To-Miss Vail Jazz Party Shows For All Music Fans

As usual, the Vail summer is flying by at mach speed, but the season’s crowning event – the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend – is geared up to be summer’s grand finale like never before.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the 2019 Vail Jazz Party is pulling out all of the stops and you don’t have to be a staunch jazz fan to catch a dose of the thrill ride. There are only a handful of such parties across the globe, in which a collection of the world’s most acclaimed jazz artists descend on the same place for several days of multimedia performances and one-of-a-kind jam sessions that will never again be recreated.

Because the blowout event is comprised of more than 45 hours of performances over five days, picking and choosing which shows to hit can be challenging. If you are new to the party or not necessarily a jazz connoisseur, there are plenty of performances that appeal to a broad audience and will be sure to blow your hair back no matter what kind of music you love. Here are five to consider:

  • A tribute to Ray Brown –1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, Ray Brown was barely a teenager when his fast-fingered, unique ability to play the upright bass put him on the national radar. He moved to New York City, joined the famous Dizzy Gillespie band, became a Grammy Award-winning composer and Downbeat Jazz Hall of Famer and is recognized as one of the most skilled bass players of all time. Brown’s talent and style can be appreciated by anyone who revels in a deep, bouncing bass line. Starring in this performance is a trio of famed musicians who actually performed and/or recorded with Brown before his death in 2002 – Vail Jazz Party House Band leader, fellow bass player and Grammy winner John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and pianist Larry Fuller.

  • Jazz & The Struggle for Freedom – 8:10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Led by Byron Stripling, one of the world’s most recognizable trumpet players (he’s starred in Broadway musicals and produced theme songs for numerous TV shows and movies), this performance highlights the connection of jazz music to the Civil Rights Movement. During a time when racial inequality ruled the day, a handful of black Americans were gaining national and even global popularity as jazz musicians, becoming major influencers of pop culture, pop music and turning the tide for all black Americans.

  • The Jazzy Side of The Beatles – 9:35 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Nobody would promptly classify The Beatles as jazz music, but the crossover is stronger than you’d think. As it turns out, the styles of the best-selling band in history found its way under countless musical umbrellas. Jazz great Count Basie had a hey day with Beatles tunes such as “Hey Jude” and “Come Together,” and famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for his studio album The Imagine Project, in which he collaborated with artists such as P!NK and Seal in a cover of The Beatles’ “Imagine.” Vail Jazz House Band pianist Bill Cunliffe joins famed Aussie bassist Nicki Parrott and drummer Ernie Adams to show you just how jazzy The Beatles can be.

  •   Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’: 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

This performance is the first Vail Jazz Party event to sell out year after year, but this year, it’s moving to the wide open confines of the Gerald Ford Amphitheater. Starring soulful, soaring, charismatic vocalist Niki Haris, who performed for many years with Madonna, along with the Mile Hi Gospel Choir and nine A-list soloists, the big stage will be a party of dance-inducing, hand-clapping harmony. The audience is guaranteed to get swept up in the communal, gleeful surge of good vibes.

  •  Wycliffe Gordon’s Nu-Funk Machine Dance Party: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

Clear out the chairs, people. You’re going to need space. Possibly the world’s most talented trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon would be the first to point out that the first three letters of funk spell F-U-N. The Vail Jazz Party House Band veteran is famous for getting crowds on their feet and believes that the foundation for any good time is for those both on and off the stage to “join us in the groove.” Joy will be shared all around.

2019 Vail Jazz Party Aug. 29 – Sept. 2

The 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party takes place Aug. 29 to Sept. 2. Tickets are available for individual sessions (starting at $25) HERE as well as party passes for five days of performances (starting at $375) HERE.

Howard Stone: I Did It My Way

The Academy Award-winning documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) explores the careers and lives of a number of rock/pop “backup” singers. These very talented women backed up Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and other iconic rock/pop performers, but while the public may have known their voices, they were largely anonymous, performing while standing in the shadows, as the spotlight shone brightly on some of the legendary pop vocalists of the 21st century. Their value was their ability to blend and harmonize with the “front person,” enabling the group effort to create an overall sound that propelled the leader to fame and fortune. The film examines the hurdles, some self-imposed, that prevented these great vocalists from solo careers and stardom. There have been, of course, many male backup singers in rock/pop, as well, and many of both gender have gone on to great careers. Cher, Elton John, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Michael McDonald, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Phil Collins and John Legend, to name just a few, all sang backup before becoming huge commercial successes.

Howard Stone (above: Catherine Russell).

What about jazz backup singers transitioning to the limelight? The simple answer is there haven’t been any, because there haven’t been any jazz backup singers. While there have been several instances where members of a jazz vocal ensemble (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and the Manhattan Transfer come to mind) have vocally supported a solo by one of its members, the jazz vocal tradition relies more on the interaction between the vocalist, who is seen as another one of the instrumentalists, and the remaining members of the band. In jazz, everyone is responsible for the group sound or you are a soloist and everyone else in the band supports you. Scatting, the vocal technique of singing non-sense syllables, is a perfect example of how a jazz singer and the band work together for a group sound. So in jazz there is a totally different approach to the music.

Interestingly enough, there have been only a few rock/pop backup singers that have become top draw jazz vocalists. Catherine Russell and Niki Haris are two of them. Each started out singing backup for legendary pop artists. In the case of Catherine, she spent over two decades singing backup for the who’s who of pop music – Steely Dan, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Catherine toured extensively with David Bowie and is a multi-instrumentalist, not only singing backup, but also playing mandolin, guitar and percussion. It was only as she approached her fifth decade that she decided to take a stab at a solo career, not as a pop vocalist, but as a jazz singer.

Niki Haris began singing pop and R&B music in the early 1980s after college and from 1987 to 2001 she toured the world singing backup for Madonna. During the same period, her vocal work could be heard on the soundtracks of a number of films and she appeared in the documentary film about Madonna, Truth or Dare. She also worked as a choreographer for Madonna and others. By 2003, Niki decided to focus on family life and gave birth to her daughter, and when she returned to work as a vocalist several years later, she began to sing jazz and gospel.

So how is it that these two very successful rock backup singers suddenly discovered jazz and decided that in the later part of their careers they wanted to be a soloist singing jazz? Well, I guess the old proverb, “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and the lyrics of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” may explain it. Catherine and Niki have several things in common that I believe led them to jazz. Both are the daughters of jazz greats, but they both chose a career path outside the world of jazz. While their musical journeys may have started with jazz, both established their own identities and didn’t initially follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

In Catherine’s case, her father was Luis Russell, the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. In Niki’s case, her father was Gene Harris (Niki uses one “r” in her last name), who was one of the most soulful pianists to ever play jazz, with a career that spanned over four decades.

So now you can see why the metaphor and song lyrics above are so appropriate. The daughters of two jazz greats grow up and develop into remarkably talented vocalists, but the world they grow up in is not the world of their fathers. Instead, they come of age in a world dominated by rock. My view is that as gifted, independent young women, they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their famous fathers, but instead, they did it their way.

Catherine Russell makes her Vail debut as part of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival on Aug. 15 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets HERE). Niki will once again return to Vail to lead the perennial Vail Jazz Party favorite, The Gospel Prayer Meetin,’ which will make its inaugural appearance on the big stage in the Ford Amphitheater on Sunday morning, September 1 (Get tickets HERE).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Sing It, Soul Sister: Let There be Light

Doubtless for most of us, when we hear the word “soulful,” it calls to mind individuals such as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Gladys Knight or Peggy Scott-Adams.

It is also quite likely the most common adjective used to describe singer Niki Haris. However, according to Haris herself, the word means far more than the ability to express oneself vocally like a gale force wind, wailing melodically from the very depths of one’s body.

No … to Haris, the word carries more literal meaning, particularly when she explains why she named her upcoming pair of performances at the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series a tribute to “the sisters of soul.”

“Maybe people will walk into the room and expect to hear a lot of R & B music, or a bunch of singers from Detroit or Memphis. But when I decided to call it ‘sisters of soul,’ it was about sisters who touched my soul, sisters who resonated in my soul,” Haris says. “Even though people call me a soulful singer, it’s not just because I can sing R & B. I’d like to think it’s because my music reaches them in a deep place.”

Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day weekend at the annual Vail Jazz Party. A back-up vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has seen her front and center on stages all over the world and her recordings, ranging in genre from pop to jazz, R&B to funk, have topped Billboard charts.

When it comes to specifying who has touched her soul musically and how, Haris, who grew up outside in Benton Harbor, MI and currently resides in Augusta, GA, offers an immediate bank of inspirations, all of whom feel so familiar to her (in spite of having never met the majority), she lists them by first name like one would close friends. They are women whose songs call to mind unforgettable milestones and profound emotions.

“I might say, oh my god, that’s the song I got my first kiss to, or, that’s the song that made me feel so strong inside. These are people who chose to bare their souls and ended up touching mine,” Haris says. “Aretha, she’s an obvious one. There’s everyone from Judy, Gladys, Billie, Nancy, Whitney … I’m going to start with the women first. I’m going to sing from the soul, sing about things that touch my soul.”

Haris believes that singing from the soul is especially crucial during turbulent times. She notes that such expression has, historically, provided a guiding light through some of America’s darkest eras.

“The biggest movements in history are about turning to your soul, from the suffrage and civil rights movements, slavery … there’s something deep inside of people that calls them to action,” she says. “We are in a very auspicious time in our history right now. It’s time to be brave, to sing loudly, to speak boldly, to dance.”

The vocalist equates the human ability to tap into one’s soul with unleashing a glow that can brighten one’s own heart and discover one’s best self as well as cast warmth on everyone in the room … everyone in earshot. Her own ability to do this has been on stark display every time she steps onto the stage, in Vail especially.

“Sometimes I feel I’m coming down there as a crazy Baptist, I’m so into the music,” she says. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on. It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world.”

Enter the sister(s) of soul.

“I’m really lucky I get to do music that tends to change people’s lives, music that is about more than just coming to a concert and having a good time. I’m going to sing the songs of certain women and it’s not just soulful … it’s soul-filled. These sisters filled my soul. They filled my cup. In this high-tech, low-touch world, I hope I touch some people’s souls.”

March 19 – Niki Haris Salutes the Sisters of Soul

Accompanied by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Mark Simon on bass, Paul Romaine on drums and Steve Kovalcheck on guitar, the powerful vocalist performs two sets that just might be life-changing at Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel. Seating is jazz club style in Ludwig’s Terrace with full dinner and bar service available (a $30 food and beverage minimum applies). Doors open at 5 p.m. for the 5:30 p.m. performance and at 7:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. Tickets to each performance are $40. For more information, call 970-479-6146.

Get tickets here to the 5:30 p.m. show.

Get tickets here to the 8 p.m. show.

 

10 Reasons to Catch the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series

It can be argued that live jazz is best enjoyed in a warm, classy lounge with snow falling outside. This is just one of many reasons to secure your spot at the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series.

It is widely known that jazz became popular in the 1930s, but its hey day in Vail has gone on for 25 years … with the best still to come. That’s yet another reason to look into what Vail Jazz has cooking this winter. But here are the key 10:

It’s Vail Jazz’s silver anniversary, so the Series is going big. Following the holiday kickoff extravaganza – a swing dance party at The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch with New York City’s sizzling eight-piece The Hot Sardines, the 2019 Winter Series is delivering more than ever before – seven evenings of live music throughout the winter. Five of these sparkling nights take place in the swanky lounge setting of Ludwig’s Terrace at Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel.

Entertainment for both the après crowd and the late-nighters. World-class artists light up The Sonnenalp Hotel on Feb. 26, March 5, March 12, March 19 and March 26 in a true jazz club format of back-to-back performances. The first seating appeals to the après ski crowd at 5:30 p.m. and the second targets late-night live music seekers at 8 p.m. Full dinner and bar service are available at each seating.

When we say the 2019 lineup is “world-class,” we mean it. The Winter Series lineup is comprised of the most talented artists in today’s jazz world … lauded not only in the U.S., but across the globe. After his sold-out Vail debut last summer, American blues pianist and vocalist Joe McBride returns on Feb. 26, followed by French-born songstress Cyrille Aimée on March 5, the charismatic Emmet Cohen Trio on March 12, soulful gospel favorite Niki Haris on March 19 and finally Grammy-nominated pianist John Chin on March 26. That’s not to mention the savvy on intimate display at private residences for the Series’ invite-only gigs. Former Stevie Wonder band member and vocalist Robert Johnson performs with The Mark Diamond Trio on March 2 and Australian multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham on March 30.

Jazz has many musical wings and R&B is one of them. Joe McBride has oft been compared to Ray Charles. While the two share many characteristics – losing their eyesight at a young age followed by rapid development of tremendous vocal and piano talent – McBride has a sound all his own, even when he’s rolling through America’s favorite blues tunes. The Missouri native has recorded and/or shared the stage with everyone from Whitney Houston to Larry Carlton. He channels the spirits of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and other R&B Songbook masters with his own smokin’ energy and style on Feb. 26.

A voice that will hypnotize. Anyone who has trouble believing that vocal cords are a serious instrument has never heard or witnessed the enchantment of Cyrille Aimée. The young singer’s versatile vocal skills have been noted worldwide, from her native France, where she won the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival Competition, to New York City, where she’s won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Her voice has been enthusiastically described as everything from “saucy” to “sweet” by the New York Times.

Lose yourself in musical passion. The power of The Emmet Cohen Trio is all-encompassing, like walking into a tunnel of sound where every one of your senses is simultaneously enlivened, yet relaxed. A musical prodigy from the age of 3, Emmet Cohen’s piano compositions and delivery run the gamut from fluid to explosive. The Trio hits every tone and color on the jazz palette on March 12.

The rare treat of experiencing Niki Haris on a small stage. Every year at the end-of-summer climax event, the Vail Jazz Party, the first tickets to sell out are for Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin.’ The incredible soul singer who spent years touring with Madonna might be making a rarefied appearance on a smaller, indoor stage, but you can rest assured that her output will be as large and in-charge as ever. She gambols through a potent gamut of romping numbers while saluting her fellow sisters of soul on March 19.

The opportunity to witness John Chin before he’s swept up in big-time stardom. Born in South Korea and raised in California before moving to New York City and becoming a fixture of the Big Apple’s deep talent pool, John Chin draws inspiration not only from traditional jazz, but from pop, western and classical genres in his unique compositions. He’s released four albums as a bandleader and was nominated for a Grammy for his work on René Marie’s 2017 “Sound of Red” release. If you caught him performing with Marie in her Vail debut a couple of summers ago, you know he’s on a skyward trajectory. Don’t miss him at The Sonnenalp on March 26.

Supporting the future of musical talent, locally and globally. In addition to bringing in some of the world’s finest artists for the Winter Series and the pageant of free and ticketed summer performances, Vail Jazz also does its part in fostering generations of musicians to come through unique educational programs. These include the year-round Vail Jazz Goes to School program as well as the free summertime Jammin’ Jazz Kids sessions and the Vail Jazz Workshop, which selects and finances 12 of America’s top teenage musical prodigies in an intensive, week-long study group that culminates with live performances at the Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party. Every ticket purchased for a Vail Jazz performance or a donation made directly supports the nonprofit’s educational initiatives which, in turn, secures amazing talent for our children and their children to enjoy.

Classy date night. It’s a beautiful, cold, wintery night and there you are, cozied up with your loved one in the elegant Ludwig’s Terrace, a glass of wine and gourmet meal on the table and one of the planet’s most talented musicians providing a scintillating live soundtrack a few feet away. A night out in Vail doesn’t really get more romantic.

Learn more about Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary Winter Series.