Like many musicians, Twin Cities–based guitarist Zacc Harris takes constant inspiration from the midsixties Miles Davis Quintet featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. History being what it is, no rational modern player sets out to compete with that group’s accomplishments, but few are harmed by its influence. The Zacc Harris Group, initially a quartet, was partly formed because the leader thought he and his fellow musicians—the expressive and dazzling pianist Bryan Nichols, and the ever-inventive rhythm section of brothers Chris and JT Bates— could approach something of that polestar Davis combo’s compositional rigor, formal openness, and telepathic interplay. Small Wonders—the Zacc Harris Group’s second album, and Harris’s third as a leader—displays those qualities and is Harris’s most expansive and involving set of compositions yet, the music’s palette expanded by the presence, on all but two tracks, of trumpeter and flugelhornist John Raymond and tenor saxophonist Brandon Wozniak. This album’s title refers to Harris’s two children, who are pictured on album’s cover, and much of the album is inspired by the joys—the struggles, too—of parenting young children.
The group, formed in 2009, made its recorded debut with 2012’s The Garden, which on some tracks features Wozniak, a compatriot from Atlantis Quartet, the collaborative group that also features Chris Bates and drummer Peter Hennig. Harris and his wife were about to have their first child around the time of The Garden’s release. In the years that followed, Harris was sometimes overwhelmed by parenting, teaching, and maintaining his multiple musical projects and side gigs. Understandably, it took him a while to amass a book of songs he considered worthy of the group’s follow-up. When he did, he and the group tracked in what he describes as an unusually fruitful and relaxed session, engineered and later mixed by Dylan Nau, that yielded many keeper first takes. The album was finished before the pandemic began, and though Harris was eager to get the music into the world, he decided to hold off on releasing the album until more conventional gigging was possible.
An aptly moody bass ostinato opens the album’s opener, “Ominous Skies,” whose stately opening theme, introduces the sextet’s elements in spotlit and collective moments. Wozniak’s broad-scope solo indicates why he’s a Twin Cities saxophone leader with a growing national reputation. The tune in part explores a Phrygian tonality (the Phrygian mode is like a natural minor scale but with an added minor second providing extra tension—the tension sometimes associated with shark attacks). It also showcases Harris’s blues foundation. Speaking of showcases, Harris says he wanted the song to highlight the Bates brothers’ mind-melded facility with groove, that “lithe swinging,” as he puts it, that takes over when the ostinato gives way to a walk. And dig Raymond’s improvisational intelligence and commanding upper register!
“Sundials” has a pleasing Latin groove. It’s one of a couple tunes on the album that employs constant structure, the technique, that is, of building a progression around chords of the same type (two major- seven chords, for instance) that aren’t necessarily diatonic within a key center or otherwise obviously related. But while theoretical challenges sometimes ignite Harris’s writing, they’re subtextual by the time his inviting pieces are arranged and realized. The next piece, “Glass Houses,” is a waltz on which Chris and JT Bates again demonstrate how beautifully they comp, offering interesting movement and accents without overpowering the focal point. Harris loves the freedom a jazz waltz can provide. “There are just so many ways to play with the time. And Chris and JT are particularly adept at that.”
The ingeniously structured “Civil Dawn” comes from a nautical term used to describe the moment light breaks over the horizon. After an eight-bar intro, it begins with a brisk melody, played by guitar, piano, and flugelhorn and built darkly on the augmented scale. The theme’s short next section is, well, sunnier, perhaps an interpretation of the titular aurora. Unexpectedly, the piece then gives way to a rubato, unaccompanied solo by Nichols, who eventually cues the band back in for a head-bobbing half-time section over which Harris and Raymond trade and overlap improvisations. The dialogic theme returns to close this grand and unpredictable piece, an album and career highlight.
“A Beautiful Life” was written as a eulogy for Adam Johnson, a neuroscientist whom Harris, a soccer fan and recreational player, met on the pitch. Diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, Johnson outlived his initial prognosis by several years and was still doing research days before his death. Harris wrote the tribute in one sitting after visiting Johnson in hospice.
In that much of Small Wonders is in a reflective mode, “The Void,” provides barn-burning balance. Not that the piece is insubstantial, but in addition to its compositional interest, it really lets the six players blow. Quite a band. The title of the soaring “Mixed Signals,” one of the album’s two cuts to feature only the original quartet, has two origins: one is that drummer Bates felt, during a rehearsal, that he was getting “mixed signals” from Harris’s energetic dog, Delilah; more technically, the title refers to how the quarter- note triplets of the opening ostinato play against the 4/4 pulse. Perhaps Delilah dislikes syncopation.
“Apple Jacks” nods to Ahmad Jamal, a favorite of Harris’s younger child, Evan. The New Orleans– inflected treatment is a natural for JT Bates. “Maya Song,” for Harris’s daughter, is a lovely closer but not without a few harmonic rubs. “I wanted the song to acknowledge the challenges of parenting,” Harris says. “But I think the final bars elicit the joy knowing her has brought to me.”
Knowing the emotional and musical inspirations for these nine pieces can enrich the listening experience and give the album a memoiristic appeal, but each piece—for that matter, each solo—holds narrative interest even without backstory. Harris has long operated at a high level on many fronts—improviser, interpreter, sound sculptor, writer, bandleader—but his compositional intelligence runs deeper than ever on Small Wonders, and his fellow musicians are obviously inspired at every turn.
About Zacc Harris:
Zacc Harris is among the Twin Cities’ most revered guitarists. In addition to the groups already mentioned, he has received acclaim for his American Reverie project, a trio that reimagines folk songs both traditional and modern along with country, pop, rock, and a few like-minded originals. As a sideman, Harris has shared stages with the great, recently deceased vocalist Debbie Duncan, Bruce Henry, Eric Gravatt, Ben Wendel, Michael Janisch, Marquis Hill and many others. Among his other current projects are playing with JT Bates’ Grain Trio, Lars Larson’s Mancrush, Cory Healey’s Beautiful Sunshine Band, Dean Granros’s Tall Tales, and the Adam Meckler Quintet. He has received several grants, fellowships, and awards, including a McKnight Fellowship and a Minnesota Emerging Composers Award. In 2017, City Pages named him the area’s Best Jazz Artist.
– Dylan Hicks