Steve Harris: Improvising jazz percussionist

Saturday 26 April 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


'Neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious . . ." Thomas Hardy was writing about a place – Egdon Heath in his imaginary-but-real Wessex - but the words also apply uncannily well to the music of Zaum, an improvising ensemble of extraordinary power and innovation founded in Poole in Dorset (fictionalised as "Havenpool" in Hardy's Life's Little Ironies). It was in Dorchester, Hardy's "Casterbridge", that the Zaum founder and percussionist Steve Harris died, at a time when his work with the group, recently remastered and reissued in a uniform edition, was starting to receive wider recognition.

The group's name and aesthetic was derived from the Russian Futurist perception that contemporary reality cannot be adequately expressed in old, tired, compromised languages and forms, but needs something fresh and visceral to take their place. Zaum's music, and particularly on the group's masterpiece Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open (2004), a unique blend of saxophone, clarinet, viola, electric guitars and percussion, yielded up a sound that was "neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly" but "singularly colossal and mysterious".

It was an unexpected culmination for an artist of Harris's instincts. He was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1949, the son of Albert Harris, a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable supplier with a distinguished war record and Margaret Harris, a company secretary. By his own admission, he was not an academic high-flier. Rock'n'roll was his undoing and his great frustration at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School for Boys was the lack of music tuition.

He started playing in his teens, apparently with Rocky Sharp and the Razors, but later recorded – alongside Rik Kenton who later played in Roxy Music – with the cultish progressive rock group Woody Kern on an LP called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1967), which was reissued in 2002; Harris is listed as co-composer of "Biography" (the single) and "Xoanan Bay", as well as other tracks. He also performed with the even more obscure Witchwhat – who released a record on Beacon – and he even auditioned for the drummer's job in T Rex ("Too tall and muscular, I think").

Like so many musicians of his generation, Harris seemed to be waiting for punk to happen. He played with the punk group Amazorblades, but was becoming increasingly interested in jazz and improvised music. At this time, he met and began working with the saxophonist Geoff Hearn, who later became a key member of Zaum, but it was with another saxophone player, Jan Kopinski, that Harris scored his first major success, as drummer with the critically acclaimed Pinski Zoo, which was formed in 1980. Though the group didn't sustain its early success, with records like East Rail East (1990), Harris kept up contact with Kopinski and guested with the group in later years.

Even when critically and commercially "slighted", improvising musicians learn to endure. Though long-term commercial success eluded him, Harris also drove his energy and conviction in the direction of community arts and education. He worked in Coventry, Banbury and in the mining community of Atherstone, Warwickshire. He also lived for a time in Ulster where he worked as a musician for the Lyric Theatre and for Opera Northern Ireland Co. Here he also met his future partner and fellow composer Kathie Prince.

In 2001, Harris and Prince and their first daughter (another was born shortly thereafter) moved to Dorset, where Harris worked as an arts and music officer. He also founded the improvising collective SafeHouse, which now also has a branch further along the coast in Brighton.

Out of this experience, Harris established Zaum, renewing his relationship with Hearn (who was a duo partner on the 2003 recording As Slow As Flowers), but also drawing on a recent partnership with the violist Cathy Stevens of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose nuanced playing and ability to establish strong jazzy grooves were to become key components of the Zaum sound. Harris also invited along the clarinettist Karen Wimhurst and the electric guitarist Udo Dzieranowski.

These were the founding members of the group which in 2002 recorded the eponymous Zaum for Slam Records; "the first sounds we made at that performance were the first we'd ever made together". Subsequent recordings drew in other musicians, including the sound artist Adrian Newton, second guitarist Matthew Olczak, as well as other string players.

The group's second record, Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open was given five-star status in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (2006). A live performance at the Spitz in London was released as The Little Flash of Letting Go (2005). A further recording, I Hope You Never Love Anything As Much As I Love You was released in 2007. An "act of faith" resulted in some of the most compelling and innovative music of the new decade.

Harris insisted that his life and music were "a bit more Thomas Pynchon than Thomas Hardy", but he loved living and working in Dorset. Physically commanding as well as big in personality and with a strong empathy for developing improvisers, he developed a thriving musical community that will continue.

Brian Morton

Steve Harris, percussionist and composer: born Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 16 August 1948; (two daughters with Kathie Prince); died Dorchester 11 January 2008.

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