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Loston Harris On Piano Jazz

Singer and pianist Loston Harris initially entered Virginia Commonwealth University as a percussion major, but shifted to the piano after professor Ellis Marsalis overheard him tinkering at the keys. Today, with his Loston Harris Trio, he's in the seventh year of a residency at the legendary Bemelmans Bar in Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel, playing jazz and standards in a room that has seen more than its share of great performances — not bad for a musician who didn't take up the piano until age 21.

On this episode of Piano Jazz, Harris joins guest host Michael Feinstein, himself a walking encyclopedia of standards and American song, to discuss the cabaret tradition, Frank Sinatra and film scores — and to play a few tunes.

Harris kicks the session off with a Piano Jazz favorite: Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz." Harris has a soulful and tasteful take on the tune.

"That was delicious," Feinstein says. "Did you first learn that from listening to the original Fats Waller recording?"

"Actually, I first learned it by transcribing Ellis Marsalis' recording," Harris says. "I was thinking that I was copying Ellis' version and putting in his nuances. Then I later listened to the Fats Waller version, and actually Ellis was copying Fats."

Vocal Impressions

On the topic of standards and lyrics, Harris credits Frank Sinatra with first showing him the importance of the vocalist's interpretation.

"I was already playing standards in a piano trio, but with Sinatra, I first discovered the words," Harris says. "And listening to Nat King Cole, I realized that people might like to hear the words — I like to hear the words."

Harris continues with a Cole favorite, "Route 66." His playing is spot-on and shows his roots in percussion. He turns in a swinging vocal, as well.

Up To Interpretation

Feinstein points out that many of the standards in the Great American Songbook are interpreted differently than the original lyricists intended. For example, Rowland "Bunny" Berigan changed the lyric on the Ira Gershwin tune, "I Can't Get Started With You."

"Bunny Berigan made a record and it became a hit," Harris says. "He changed the lyric, and everybody sang it way the Bunny recorded it. Then Gershwin fretted over it for the next 40 years."

Feinstein plays "I Can't Get Started With You" and restores the lyric to Gershwin's original. But Harris admits to not knowing enough about the composers behind the songs.

"Most of what I've learned came from asking you questions," Harris says. "I've always gravitated to the performers. But the composers — that's a whole 'nother world, and they do deserve the respect of getting the melody right."

Next, Harris plays a soulful, joyous rendition of "Misty." A huge Erroll Garner fan, Harris brings a freshness to one of the most requested standards ever.

Romancing Film Scores

Feinstein sings a duet, with Harris accompanying, in "I'm Old Fashioned." The tune comes from the film You Were Never Lovelier, a 1942 musical comedy starting Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. After the tune, the discussion moves in to film scores.

"That's an entire body of work that is not very well known to the public," Feinstein says. "Except in some cases, where tunes become hits or standards, like 'On Green Dolphin Street,' which was a movie theme."

Feinstein plays a medley of two film scores by composer David Rex, the theme from The Bad and the Beautiful and the theme from Two Weeks in Another Town.

"Beautiful! I have to check those films out," Harris says.

Getting back to Sinatra, Harris professes a liking for lyricist Sammy Cahn, who wrote many of his lyrics with Sinatra's vocal mannerisms and plainspokenness in mind. The young Harris then sings and plays "The Things We Did Last Summer," somehow conjuring mid- to late-career Sinatra, who infused the tune with memories of summers long past.

The session closes with a blistering all-piano duet in "The Way You Look Tonight," by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Feinstein and Harris have a grand time trading solo bars, tossing in a few glissandos and a bit of boogie woogie, to end this week's Piano Jazz.

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