If you have limited vision, Corey Harris could be labelled a bluesman. Yet a closer look reveals that blues is just a jump-off point for the singer/guitarist. "I don't really look at labels," Harris said last week by phone from his Charlottesville, VA, home. "I'm looking at the roots. I'm not trying to do anything fancy or take anything out of the book -- just play for real."
Harris -- who plays the Visulite this weekend with his band, the 5x5 (Victor Brown on bass, Johnny Gilmore on drums) -- is as much a student of music as he is a performer. After studying anthropology at Bates College in Maine, Harris got a postgraduate fellowship to study Pidgin English in Cameroon, West Africa.
"How we as black people express ourselves in English in different ways has always interested me," Harris said. When abroad, he wanted to go back to the roots, the "stoop days," to see how black idioms developed.
Harris discovered juju music while in Cameroon and began to investigate country blues. Relocating to Louisiana, Harris played guitar on the streets of New Orleans by night, teaching French and English by day in the rural town of Belle Rose. His 1995 Alligator Records debut, Between Midnight And Day, demonstrated Harris' mastery of acoustic rural blues from Charley Patton to Muddy Waters, as well as a good dose of Blind Boy Fuller's Piedmont blues style.
Harris fleshed out his sound for his next record, 1997's Fish Ain't Bitin', sounding rather like he was fronting the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. On record, the singer-songwriter exchanges his real life soft-spoken demeanor for a raucous, swaggering, brassy buzz-saw delivery that at times resembles Taj Mahal.
Greens From the Garden (1999) saw Harris time-traveling, jumping back and forth from hip-hop to blues to reggae and ragtime. Hip-hop has long intrigued Harris, who lists Nas, KRS-1 and Pharoahe Monch as favorites. "I think that would be fun -- to do something to back them up -- if I found somebody who really represented it and really came in with something I could respect and relate to," the singer says. "I feel there's been some people who've really done explorations on that vibe, but it hasn't been done quite the way it should be done."
The follow-up to Greens, Vu-Du Menz, paired Harris with New Orleans pianist Henry Butler for some stomping, rollicking barrelhouse Big Easy blues. "He's one of most solid all-around musicians you'll ever meet, from classical to blues to jazz to reggae to Cuban music ... anything -- he can do it," says Harris of Butler, who's also featured on his latest, Daily Bread. "It's really a privilege for me to work with him. He's a teacher too -- you can learn a lot from him."
For 2003's Mississippi to Mali, Harris dug deeply into his African roots research. Earlier that year, his visit with Malian musician Ali Farka Touré had been filmed by Martin Scorsese for his series The Blues. The record is basically a field recording, done with no rehearsals and recorded either in the houses of the musicians involved or literally just outside their doors. "I don't know if I would do that again. It was an adventure, you know? The whole thing was fun." Harris prefers the confines of a studio, where things are easier to control. "A whole bunch of stuff comes up," he says, laughing. "Sometimes it could be electricity issues, or heat or noise."
Before he did Mississippi to Mali, Harris was planning to do an album with American "blues elders." When an offer came along to play with Malian guitar legend Boubacar Traoré, followed by Scorsese's proposal, he decided to change the concept, adding an African collaboration. "The people we worked with on that record were definitely elders in every sense of the word," Harris says.
Guitarists Ali Farke Touré and Ali Magassa, with percussionist Souleyman Kane, represented the African contingent. For the Mississippi segment, Harris wanted to use a couple of country blues giants. "I had been thinking about working with John Jackson, but he passed away." He had also planned to use fife-maker and leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Otha Turner, but he also died, a week before recording was to take place. Harris called on Turner's 12-year-old granddaughter, Shardé Thomas, to sing and lead the master's band.
On Harris' latest effort, Daily Bread, reggae is the predominant flavor, but Harris didn't visit Jamaica for inspiration. "Nope," he laughs. "Sure didn't. Just continued to be roots, just looking at the basics, the fundamentals, trying to break it down and do something creative."
His version of O.V. Wright's classic "Nickel and a Nail" is a prime example of doing something creative with the basics. The combination of gospel organ and blues guitar topped with Harris' soulful vocals is hair-raising. The reggae represented here is old school, one-drop style -- "Got To Be A Better Way" could be an outtake from Bob Marley's 1960s Studio One sessions.
Harris stirs up a multi-cultural gumbo on "Big String," combining gypsy jazz violin, Malian griot sounds and classic R&B to achieve an African Western Swing feel.
Harris says his African interjections aren't deliberate. "I just go where I have friendships. I had friends who invited me to come to Mali and play with them, and it just kind of grew from there." That growth now includes neighboring Guinea, where Harris has cultivated new relations. He says he wouldn't say no to going any place that features music he loves. "It's a passion with me."
But the singer won't limit himself to one style or area. For his next record, Harris is keeping his options open. "I've considered doing what somebody might think of as jazz," Harris says. "But I'm not gonna go out and play 'Body and Soul.' I'm not gonna have a record on Blue Note."
His goal is to make music that's creative, original and says something about his surroundings. "I know the company, they wanted something more rockin', but we'll see what comes up," Harris chuckles. "I have a band, so anything can happen."
Corey Harris and the 5x5 play the Visulite Saturday, Feb. 18 at 10pm. Tickets $12 in advance, $14 day of show. See visulite.com.