Music Monday, November 30th Words by: Mark Bowen, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Remi Harris: Gypsy Jazz ace

Music Monday, November 30th

Remi Harris: Gypsy Jazz ace

Driving over to meet Remi Harris, the landscape is choked with early morning fog.

It’s the type of fog that used to be called a peasouper in days gone by.

The day looks set to confirm the fully fledged arrival of winter and all that comes with it.

As I drive through the countryside to get to his rural home I keep focussing on trees heavily laden with brown leaves. I think about stopping to take some photos but I’m running against the clock.

By the time I get to photograph Remi the fog has lifted and the sunshine is strong, illuminating the background containing tractors, trees, turkeys and even goats.

Remi is regarded as one of the UK's best up and coming young jazz guitarists.

The 27-year-old has toured the UK, Australia, France, Norway and Italy. He has also performed at Buckingham Palace, live on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 3. 

His style is certainly unique blending elements from gypsy swing, jazz, blues, rock'n'roll, and world music. 

In 2014 Remi, who performs alongside guitarist Caley Groves and bass player Mike Green, was awarded runner-up in the British Jazz Awards in both the rising star and guitar categories.

With recent multiple plays by Cerys Matthews on her 6 Music show his star is still very much in the ascendency.

Remi and wife Dani live in Lindridge, a village close to Tenbury. But Remi is a Bromyard boy and proud of it.

“My father is from the Kidderminster area and my mother is from Normandy,” explains Remi.

“They moved to Pencombe and then at the age of four we moved to Bromyard. Living in Bromyard was good although I have nothing to compare it to.

“Because it is so small all of your mates lived around the corner. It also allowed us to play lots of music because we were so close together.

“We formed a band called Mars Bonfire and we were all Bromyard boys apart from the singer who lived in Hereford.

“We performed all over the place and we would play Led Zeppelin, Rage Against The Machine, and Jimi Hendrix so it was the heavier side of rock.”

Remi started playing on his own encouraged by his artist father.

“When I was a kid there was always music playing in the background and music magazines scattered around,” said Remi.

“I was obsessed with the guitar from a very early age and I started playing with mates when I was a couple of years in.

”I was encouraged to be creative by my parents in both painting and music.”

Given his ability to improvise with his later music career there is little doubt that this environment helped him flourish.

“The majority of what I play in a gig is improvised. That is because I was not formally trained as a kid,” said Remi.

“Improvisation is always something that has been natural to me.

“I feel as comfortable improvising as I do doing anything else. But my improvising is not free form so there are rules and structure to the improvisation.

”It’s not pulled out of thin air. You have to be pretty sharp to do it.

“Improvising reflects your current mood. You are almost channelling your emotion through it.

“Sometimes my improvisation is flamboyant and edgy but sometimes it is subdued. It all comes down to how I am feeling at the time.”

Remi does not sing and he does not work with a vocalist. Hearing his version of the standard Bye Bye Blackbird comes as a shock to the system as much of the song’s impact is drawn from its much-debated lyric.

“I prefer to hear melody rather than lyrics. My favourite songs would still be my favourite songs regardless of the words,” said Remi.

“I can hear a melody and for me that has more emotional impact.”

Remi plans to release his second album early next year. This will mainly feature covers but will include one original song.

“Writing songs is something I want to do more of but you have to know the standards and be able to play them if somebody requests them,” said Remi.

“Often in a live show people like to hear what they are familiar with and they like to hear our take on it.”

Remi’s versions of other people’s songs are interpretations rather than covers.

They demonstrate his ability to take an often classic number, dress it in new clothes, and give it a shimmering new appearance at the end of the process.

He tells us that improvising is like instant composition.

“A jazz musician takes two minutes to write two minutes worth of music,” said Remi. “But a composer can spend three months writing three minutes of music.

“As a result improvisation can be imperfect because you cannot go back and edit it.”

At the age of 22 Remi packed in his job at Trevor Davies Music in Leominster to go professional.

“I had worked there since I was 15. I worked there three times a week and played guitar the rest of the time,” he said.

“Trevor was always very supportive of me if we had to go away for a few days to play. When it came to turning professional he was understanding.”

Although he loves playing live Remi is also in awe of the recording process. He sees the two activities as sitting in tandem.

“When you are recording and your paintbrush touches the canvas your artistic statement is made,” said Remi.

“Because of mum and dad being painters I always wanted to paint as well as be a musician. And I see music as a canvass that you are applying paint to.

“My music is less about being a showman and more about playing music.

“I play every day regardless of whether I have got a gig or not I am playing guitar.

“I love playing with musicians and by playing you can make a living.”

It is gypsy jazz that has truly stolen Remi’s heart.

It is similar to American jazz but played on two guitars, a double bass and sometimes with a violin.

“You can play it anywhere. You don’t need electricity and you can jam anywhere,” said Remi. “That is one of the reasons I love it so much.

“The older I get the more I like to take things to their roots. If you bring music down to its basics it is just rhythm, melody, and harmony. Anything else is extra.

“With Gypsy jazz you have the three elements and there is nothing superfluous but it still contains all the essential elements.”

The same can certainly be said of his own performances.

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