Blues Music Magazine #2

By Michael Cote

The contrast between Otis Taylor and Anne Harris couldn't be more striking. A burly man with a brooding presence, Taylor personifies the foreboding of his songs. While he may temper that seriousness with a “Hambone” harmonica workout, you could see how he would want to share the stage with a petite fiddler who augments her heartfelt playing with free-spirited dancing. Someone to remind you there’s joy on the other side of the darkness in Taylor’s tough tales. Over the past several years, Harris has become an integral part of Taylor’s sound both on stage and on record, adding another element to his diverse instrumentation of electric guitar, cornet, banjo, bass, and percussion and adding a visual element that takes the celebratory spirit up a couple of notches.

Harris met Taylor in the green room of Buddy Guy’s Legends in 2008 the night before the Chicago Blues Festival. Neither had ever heard the other one play. Harris was there with her band to perform songs from her new album Gravity And Faith. Taylor spotted her with a violin and quipped, “Can you play that thing,” Harris recalled. “He introduced himself, but he didn’t realize he was standing in front of this larger-than-life black-and-white photograph that was probably 10 feet tall of himself that was on the wall,” Harris said. “I hadn't heard his music at that point. And here is this giant guy asking if I wanted to play his music.”

Harris was intrigued, but she wanted to get familiar with Taylor’s music first. “I’m not the kind of musician who is going to just jump in it unless I think I can really honor it with something. I want to hear it so I can contribute something positive. If it’s perfect, I don’t need to play to hear myself play.” Harris drove back to her Chicago home from the club that night listing to a CD that Taylor gave her of his Recapturing The Banjo project, a collection of songs with such featured guest players as Keb’ Mo’, Guy Davis, and Don Vappie that emphasized the instrument’s African roots. “I was immediately floored. I could barely drive straight; I was lucky I got home unscathed,” Harris said. “I was so excited by the sound and by the concept and him mixing things up in the way that I love to hear things mixed up – blues, folk, rock, and African music. And of course a great cast of players on that record. I loved his vision.”

Harris showed up at the festival the next day ready to join Taylor’s band for one song, especially since he had warned her that if he didn't like what she was doing, he wouldn't be shy about telling her so. “I was prepared to play one song and maybe get kicked to the curb. I played and then ran to put my violin away,” she said. “He gave no indication on stage whether he liked it so I figured I better get out of his way. But then he said, ‘Where are you going? You have to stay for another song.’ And I ended up staying or the whole set. He never actually said he liked what I was doing, but he didn’t kick me off the stage.” And that was pretty much how Harris earned a spot in Taylor’s band.

Since then, she’s appeared on Taylor’s Clovis People Vol. 3 (2010), Otis Taylor’s Contraband (2011) and My World Is Gone (2013). On stage, Harris has appeared in various incarnations of the band, including one lineup that performed at Denver’s Dazzle jazz club that included pianist Jason Moran and cornetist Ron Miles. “I’ve had the honor and privilege of playing with people such as Ron Miles or Jason Moran, artists that are so true to the musical form of jazz,” said Harris, who begged her mother for a violin after she took her to see the film version of Fiddler On The Roof at age three. “I think what I do is I just open my heart to what they are doing and where the sound is traveling, and I find a response to that. That’s what improvisation is about.” Taylor has a knack for surrounding himself with exceptional musicians and giving them room to explore on his one-chord “trance blues” compositions, Harris said. “He creates this framework leads people into this framework who are eclectic players and come up with different things and have a lot of range,” she said.

Harris’ body of recorded work since her solo debut in 2001 mixes up genres, but it’s rooted in a singer-songwriter pop-friendly format that would sound at home on adult alternative rock stations. She’s inspired by fellow violin players Lionel Young, an eclectic Colorado blues musician who won the International Blues Challenge in 2011, and fellow Chicago musician Andrew Bird, a former touring member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers who has won popularity with the alt-rock crowd. “I’m a true hybrid, I guess I’m a true American. I’m influenced by myriad genres,” Harris said. “To me whatever particular kind of music we’re playing, whatever bin the music is supposed to fit in at the record store; it’s sort of a nebulous thing. Soul music is soul music, and that can come through a classical format, a blues format, a Celtic format, or a bluegrass format.”

Harris is mixing music for her fifth solo album, her first in five years, which she expects to have ready in July. Sacred Steel guitarist Chuck Campbell plays slide on three tracks. She says it’s a departure from her previous work. “I’ve been really playing around with the idea of what kind of sound I can get out of my fiddle, with pedals, that whole thing. It’s nothing that sounds like anything I’ve done before,” Harris said.

Harris, who has a seven-year-old daughter, says she spends as much time as she can with her family, but jokes that she’s always 15 minutes behind in her life. Forget about balance. She had to skip all but the first date of Taylor’s recent European tour because she had to fly to Los Angeles for a Grammy Awards board meeting in May. She also performs with Jefferson Starship and singer-songwriter Cathy Richardson. “I’m very blessed to be able to carve out a life where everything I do I have great passion about, whether it’s being with my family, obviously, or the work I do musically. There isn’t a single thing I do that’s void of passion.”