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Jazz guitarist Zacc Harris: ‘The thing I’ve worked on for my whole musical life is just not an option right now’

Quarantine Qoncert #1 will take place at 7 p.m. tonight (Friday, May 8) as a Zoom “house concert.” It will feature solo sets with drummer JT Bates, guitarist Zacc Harris, bassist Chris Bates and pianist Bryan Nichols.

Zacc Harris
Zacc Harris: "I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I am going to do in this isolated situation, which is so different from what I’m used to, which is playing interactive music with other humans."
Photo by Nate Ryan

When Zacc Harris moved to Minneapolis in 2005, he hit the ground running. He took a couple of lessons from guitarist Clay Moore, who told him “You need to be giggin’, man.” Soon he was playing late-night shows at the Dakota.

Meeting drummer Pete Hennig connected him with more people and more opportunities to play. “From there,” he told MinnPost on Thursday, “I was able to start doing the thing I do well, which is networking and making things happen.”

In 2006, Harris co-founded the Atlantis Quartet. The group has released five albums to date, been named Best Twin Cities Jazz Artist by City Pages and the Star Tribune, and won a McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians. Harris leads three groups of his own, the Zacc Harris Group, the Zacc Harris Trio and American Reverie.

From Spring 2007 until the coronavirus hit, he had a regular Sunday-night date at the Riverview Wine Bar. He played often at the Black Dog, Icehouse and the Lexington. He started and programmed the St. Paul series Jazz at Studio Z for seven years. Its final three concerts of the 2019-20 season were lost to the virus.

Plus Harris is an educator, teaching privately and as an adjunct with Hamline University and Carleton College. He’s a composer – largely with Atlantis Quartet, which performs only original music by its members.

In 2010, in his copious spare time, he started an artist-focused collective record label, Shifting Paradigm Records, that now has 47 titles and an impressive roster of familiar names. It’s more labor of love than money-maker. Tonight (Friday, May 8) at 7 p.m. CST, the label will present its first virtual concert, Quarantine Qoncert #1.

Harris’s life, like that of most gigging musicians, is pieced together in the best of times. And these are the worst of times. He’s also a husband, a father of two young children, and a dog owner. When we spoke, he was walking the family dog, Delilah. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Your last gig was Sunday, March 15. Where?

Zacc Harris: That was at the Riverview. I played a bunch of gigs that weekend. People were subbing things out. I was like, well, if I’m not going to be playing for a while, I better take these gigs.

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On the Tuesday before, I played at Icehouse with JT [Bates] and Kevin [Gastonguay]. That was a big, big crowd, coming to hear JT’s Grain Trio. I remember thinking – wow, this is gonna be the last gig for a while until this thing blows over.

The gigs I had on the weekend were different. People were socially distancing already. But on Tuesday, I hugged people. And that was that.

MP: So you knew March 15 would be your last gig for a while.

ZH: I felt pretty sure. My gigs for the next two weeks had already been canceled. Atlantis Quartet was going to headline the UMD [University of Minnesota Duluth] jazz festival the following Friday. When that got canceled, that was the moment when I was like, “Uh-oh, this is going to be bad.”

I have followed this thing from early on because I’m an avid listener to The Daily podcast, and they started covering it pretty far back. I was hopeful it was only going to be through April. Now I doubt we’re going to play any normal gigs until next summer. Maybe that’s being pessimistic.

MP: Before then, what did 2020 look like for you?

ZH: It looked great! January and February are typically pretty bad months, but they were the best I ever had, in terms of gigging income. We had a number of Atlantis Quartet gigs on the books for spring. We were going to do that festival at UMD and play Mondays at Icehouse in April. We were touring in May to Chicago and Madison and were trying to confirm a date in Milwaukee.

The Atlantis Quartet
Photo by Benny Moreno
The Atlantis Quartet
I have a new record with the Zacc Harris Group that I was originally going to release in May. Now I’m not sure when I’m going to put it out.

So I was working a lot, gigging a lot, and making some more things happen out of town. I was looking at doing some touring with my group around the record and maybe line up something overseas. There were a lot of irons in the fire.

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MP: On average, how often were you performing in a given month?

ZH: I was doing 12-18 gigs a month. I had the weekly gig at the Riverview, and I would play at the Icehouse and the Lexington quite a bit, and at the Black Dog on Saturdays with various projects.

MP: What is your day like now?

ZH: I wake up in the morning and help my daughter with her distance learning for first grade, which is a lot harder than one would think. Then I take care of my 3-year-old son because we pulled him out of day care – because of the virus, and also because of the money. That was one way to mitigate lost gigs. Then I sit in front of the computer in my basement office and practice space for 25 hours a week, teaching.

MP: How are you keeping hold of your identity as a musician?

ZH: Initially, I stopped practicing the music I typically would practice, because it’s what I typically play. For the first three weeks or so, most of the music I played on my own was bluegrass, which I really hadn’t played since my mid-20s. I focused my energy onto something different, which helped take my mind off of what the reality was.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I am going to do in this isolated situation, which is so different from what I’m used to, which is playing interactive music with other humans. Part of the impetus for putting [Friday night’s] concert together was to have something to work toward.

Between taking care of the kids and doing the teaching I’m fortunate to have, and all of the technological stuff that goes around that, I don’t have much time to play and write. This summer, I’ll have more time.

MP: Are you listening to anything in particular?

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ZH: I’ve been listening to a lot of Jakob Bro. [His music is] so simple and patient, which helps me kind of just breathe through this. Another album I’ve been checking out a lot is “Lovestone” by J.D. Allen. Beyond that, I like to listen to lots of different things. If there’s something that catches my interest, I’ll transcribe it and work through it.

MP: What do you miss most?

ZH: More than anything right now, I miss playing music with my very talented musician friends. I can still play guitar every day. But the thing I’ve worked on for my whole musical life is playing interactive music. That’s just not an option right now.

MP: What is your biggest concern at the moment?

ZH: My biggest concern is the way the pandemic has been handled. It has been clearly inept and poor. I worry that it’s going to continue for much longer than it needs to. Things are going to get really tough for everybody.

My real biggest fear is that somebody in my family will get the virus and be one of those unfortunate folks that can’t fight it off.

MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in this for you?

ZH: Oh, definitely! The busy-ness of life pre-coronavirus was almost too much. Between my performing schedule and my wife’s performing schedule [as an improv artist], there were weeks when we only had one or two nights when we were both home.

Getting to spend so much time with her and my kids has been incredible. I feel very lucky to have somebody I can be with during this that I feel so happy to be with, so connected to. When you get to spend more time with somebody, you love them even more. That’s been good. And being with my kids. My son is at that age where he’s very clingy to Mama. Now he and I have this relationship we’ve never had before. So that’s amazing, too.

Just taking a pause – that has been the great silver lining.

Left to right: Zacc Harris, JT Bates, Chris Bates and Bryan Nichols performing at the Black Dog.
Photo by Andrea Canter
Left to right: Zacc Harris, JT Bates, Chris Bates and Bryan Nichols performing at the Black Dog.
MP: Let’s talk about your record label, Shifting Paradigm Records. Where is it now and what are your plans?

ZH: Another silver lining has been that people are supporting musicians by buying music at a much higher than normal rate. The first time Bandcamp waived their fees, on March 20, we did 10 percent of our all-time Bandcamp sales. We sold a lot of music.

In terms of new releases, I put future planning on hold. We don’t have anything scheduled right now. But it’s still going in terms of operations and sales and shipping.

MP: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when it’s safe to do whatever you want?

ZH: Get together with as many friends as I can. Play music with people. Hug people. Talk closely to people. I just want to be around as many friends as I can.

What we [musicians] all do is social. We bring people together. Not being able to do that has been the hardest part. 

***

Quarantine Qoncert #1 will take place at 7 p.m. tonight (Friday, May 8) as a Zoom “house concert.” It will feature solo sets with drummer JT Bates, guitarist Zacc Harris, bassist Chris Bates and pianist Bryan Nichols, each about half an hour. Tickets ($20) are available at Shifting Paradigm Records. All money will be split evenly among the performers, who between them have lost countless gigs since mid-March. When you buy a ticket, you’ll receive a link to the Zoom event.

Harris said, “Tonight will be our first livestreamed concert. One thing I find kind of unnerving about streaming is the performer is playing to their device. The only response they get are comments and emojis.

“We’re trying something different. We’re going to unmute the audience in between songs so people can clap and we can hear. It’s definitely an experiment, but I’m hoping to create some kind of version of feeling like we’re all in the same space together.”