Composed by Balance (Michael Malis/Marcus Elliot)
After texts from I Got To Keep Moving by Bill Harris (Wayne State University Press)
Bill Harris — narration
Gerald Cleaver — drums
Marcus Elliot — saxophone
Michael Malis — piano
Most people who have been following my work over the last few years know about my duo collaboration with saxophonist/composer Marcus Elliot, Balance. Our musical relationship goes back a very long time (to our high school days, actually) and he is really like a musical brother to me. We’ve released an album as a duo, but in the last couple of years we’ve also invested time and energy in creating projects that expand our ensemble. These projects feel less like “duo plus” projects, and more like larger visions that Marcus and I co-manage. It’s been a great working relationship, and we definitely have more plans to keep working in this direction. Our collaboration with Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, which I posted about a couple of weeks ago, is another example of this kind of project.
A few years ago, Guggenheim fellow and legendary Detroiter Bill Harris casually mentioned to us that he’d be interested in collaborating with us one day, we leaped at the opportunity. Bill is someone whose face I knew before I knew his work: his portrait is emblazoned on a building that I passed by almost every day for six years:
It’s a little hard to see in the Google Earth screengrab, but that’s Bill in the bottom right corner. Also featured in this mural by Nicole MacDonald is Sixto Rodriguez (a.k.a. Sugarman,) Robert Hayden, Terry Blackhawk, and other Detroit literary giants. Being on liquor store mural with Sugarman is pretty much the definition of “Detroit Famous.” Simply put, Bill is a legend.
Bill recently released a collection of short stories called “I Got to Keep Moving”, which portray loosely interconnected stories of the Great Migration. They begin on a plantation in Alabama, and trace similar characters as they and their ancestors journey north. It’s a strikingly powerful set, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Marcus and I took three of these stories and set them to music. In a series of live performances with Bill, we performed while he read. We performed the show three times over the course of the weekend: at the Toledo Museum of Art, at the University of Michigan School of Music, and at the Detroit Public Library Main Branch.
We decided to invite Gerald Cleaver on board to round out the quartet. Gerald is from Detroit, but he and Bill had never met. I was a little unsure of how the group was going to gel, since nobody (other than Marcus and I) had played together before.
All of my worries were quelled as soon as we sat down and played. Bringing Gerald on turned out (predictably) to be a great decision. His playing is completely and utterly phenomenal. Of course, I knew that already, since I’m a major fan. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much fun it was to play with him. His sound on the instrument is inviting and unobtrusive, but strong, solid, and without any ambiguity. His ears are laser-sharp in their responsiveness. I realized over the course of the weekend that, for years, Gerald has been the benchmark that I measure all other drummers against. I didn’t know that I was doing it, but now I know. It was just such a joy to play with such a masterful musician. I feel like playing with him brought my own playing up at least a couple of notches, and he really made the ensemble sound amazing.
The real star of the show was Bill, whose stories are deeply powerful and moving. He was incredible in all of our shows, showing off his skill as an engaging and poignant storyteller. He (and the rest of the band) really found his groove by our third show, at the Detroit Public Library. That show felt like a hometown reunion, and there was an incredible energy in the room. Many of the old Detroit Jazzheads were there. Gerald’s family came out. Some of my students came. A lot of Marcus and I’s friends came. It really lifted my spirits.
We also got a really glowing review in All About Jazz. Here’s a nice quote from Troy Dostert:
“What was most striking about the synergy between Harris and the band was the sheer beauty of the music: the stark contrast between the grim realities of Harris's story and the band's melodic core, located in Elliot's exultant phrases and Malis's evocative runs, was stirring. And much of the music's strength was found in the spirit of resilience and defiance that permeates Harris's text.”
The Detroit show was incredibly well documented. In addition to the trailer posted above, the full performance was shot and I suspect the video will be on the internet at some point in the (hopefully near) future. I’ll make sure to post it. In the meantime, here are some additional photos by Troy Anderson and Steven Stark: