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Perfect Pitch 

With his broad set of skills, musician and producer Devonne Harris is showing a creative template to young performers.

click to enlarge cover21_devonne_harris_no_headlines.jpg

Scott Elmquist

In the plush darkness of the downstairs bar at Vagabond, Devonne Harris is at play on the drums. He's totally at home in responsive unpredictability, sliding deep into the groove, supporting a melody with a swinging whisper of cymbals, or exploding out in a full kit solo.

Offstage at a break, Harris mixes comfortably with musicians and other friends in the audience. He's quiet but quick to laugh, not so much reserved as centered, inhabiting the borderland between self-effacing modesty and serene self-confidence.

"It is not like he is reaching out and organizing everybody," guitarist Alan Parker says. "Everybody is trying to work with him." 

In addition to Harris' collaborative advantages — perfect pitch, the ability to play every instrument, generous, unflagging positivity — he has an additional edge: a recording venue. His home studio, Jellowstone Records, is a mecca for musicians seeking an open, informal environment and a classic analog sound. National notables drop by, including Gerald Clayton, Mad Skillz, Nigel Hall and Lonnie Liston Smith. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton stopped in to record an album and liked the Butcher Brown rhythm tracks so much, he never bothered to overdub the horn solos. It was released as "Numbers" on Paytone.

Jellowstone isn't only in Harris' house, it is his house. From the outside, it's an everyday mid-20th-century tract house, north of Broad Street in the near West End. Inside it's all music. The walls are covered with images, photos of musicians who've recorded there alongside posters of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and the green Great Pyramids fold-up initially packaged with the LP release of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

It is tempting to see Harris' home as an externalized expression of his musical concept, the eclectic environment echoed in the concise sonic worlds of his DJ Harrison electronica. A full drum set dominates the living room. Cables snake down the hall to his bedroom, which doubles as the vocal booth. They branch off to the bedroom and control room next door to a nest of electronica. A computer screen and a compact Apple desktop crowds in with old-school tape machines and a mixing board. With the riot of cables, the effect is an overgrown garden — a very organic workspace. And Harris, 29, is at the heart of it.

click to enlarge Local multi-instrumentalist and producer Devonne Harris, here in his Jellowstone home studio, has been praised by national artists such as Questlove, drummer for the Roots. Upcoming projects include playing on Jack White's third solo album. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Local multi-instrumentalist and producer Devonne Harris, here in his Jellowstone home studio, has been praised by national artists such as Questlove, drummer for the Roots. Upcoming projects include playing on Jack White's third solo album.

A passionate love for music seems to run in Harris' blood. He was born in 1988 and raised by his protective and supportive single mother, Lorraine. His father, Magic 99 FM disc jockey, Lovander Shelton Jr., was around for a few early years, leaving in his wake a trove of '60s to '80s funk and soul records that fired Harris' imagination. He was entranced, not just by the songs, but how the whole sonic package came together.

His mother taught him which instruments made what sounds: She bought him a kiddie drum set when he was 3, a keyboard when he was 5, and a trumpet when he was 6 years old. When he was 9, she moved them from their rough neighborhood in Petersburg to suburban Chester — a safer environment, she felt, for his talent to develop.

At the first opportunity, Harris joined the school band as a drummer, playing in marching, orchestral and jazz ensembles. When his music teachers at Thomas Dale High School discovered he had perfect pitch, the rare ability to hear even dense clusters of notes with the precision of a written score, new opportunities opened. They let him borrow other instruments — a tuba, a clarinet, a trumpet — and take them home to learn.

Harris would figure out how they worked and then play them in the school concerts. After graduating in 2006, the next logical step for him was Virginia Commonwealth University's jazz studies program. He enrolled as a drummer and became one of the school's best players. Gigs with bassist classmate Andrew Jay Randazzo brought local recognition as the standout rhythm section of a new Richmond generation.

After graduation in 2011, Harris became a vital part of the local scene. While his drumming remains brilliant, he's increasingly heard on keyboards, and on rare occasions, bass or guitar. His highest profile regular gig is with a local all-star band, Butcher Brown, whose electric magpie aesthetic is rooted in the classic sounds of his father's record collection — the sharp-edged fusion of bands such as Weather Report and Headhunters crossed with Motown and Earth Wind and Fire and updated with hip-hop beats. With the new album, "The Healer," the group is building a wider reputation, booking early summer gigs from New York to Los Angeles.

Equally significant are the other roles Harris plays: composer, producer, collaborator and mentor. Talking about him, other musicians often casually drop the g-word — "genius" — as if to say: "How else would you describe it?" There is no question that he is an extraordinary talent, but Harris is too realistic to think that being gifted guarantees success. It's a big noisy world. The only real magic is in adaptability and sustained hard work.

For a man with so many sounds in his head, he's a quiet guy.

"I don't talk that much," Harris says. "Except amongst my friends and the people I'm working with. You don't have to explain why you want to do something, except to say I am doing what I am doing right now because I love it, and it makes me keep going."

In what would be good advice for any modern musician: Harris explains that building a broad set of skills is more of a survival strategy.

"There are all kinds of producers, and different artists want to work in different ways. I don't want to have to say 'no' when works comes my way. I want to be ready to work with everybody and anybody."

Unsurprisingly, many local musicians enjoy collaborating with him.

click to enlarge Constantly gigging, Devonne Harris performs on keys at the intimate Vagabond basement venue behind Butcher Brown bandmate Marcus Tenney on trumpet (he also plays saxophone). - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Constantly gigging, Devonne Harris performs on keys at the intimate Vagabond basement venue behind Butcher Brown bandmate Marcus Tenney on trumpet (he also plays saxophone).

"Working with Devonne is really fun," says singer and drummer Kelli Strawbridge, who recorded his late-blooming debut retro-soul-funk album "Kings" at Jellowstone. "Even though he's younger than me, he grew up on his parent's music collection, so we have a lot of shared reference points."

Strawbridge says that the studio environment is laid-back and low pressure.

"You may start out just hanging out, eating in the kitchen and then walk a few feet to the studio and start messing around with stuff." But when the tape starts rolling, things quickly snap into focus. "Devonne is fast and inspired," he says, "and he doesn't dictate what he thinks you should be doing."

The studio's output, including releases with local artists such as Strawbridge, Sam Reed and Reggie Pace, has the analog warmth of the classic records he heard as a kid.

"Devonne is not crazy about the way a lot of new records sound," Strawbridge says. "It's all about making it real with straight-up instruments, where you can hear the people and personality in the music."

"The hiss and the noise, I grew up thinking that was what music was. My music has to have that quality," Harris says. He compares tape to a blender, a way of pulling all of the parts into a consistent, satisfying whole. "If something sticks out, the natural compression squeezes it back to fit on that little strip of tape. Nothing is too overbearing or too forward in the mix."

Perhaps inevitably, he's been drawn into the orbit of Matthew E. White, whose Spacebomb Records has done much to elevate the visibility of the Richmond music scene. They started working together on "Cool Out," White's January 2016 single with Natalie Prass, and he quickly became part of the label's long-established house band. It was a relief to have someone handling the details.

"Matt is 200 percent more organized than me. Everything is printed out," Harris explains. "He knows which instruments [to use], the tone of the guitar, the percussion. He already hears the track in his head."

The respect is mutual. "Devonne is a monster instrumentalist," White says, "a freak among freaks. And as talented as he is, he's got no prideful ego at all. He's a great teammate, fitting in when he needs to fit in and stepping up when it is his time."

Prass admires Harris' work ethic, willing to polish a song over hours of takes with an amazing, positive attitude. "He is a dream in the studio, the perfect band member," she says. "He's very intuitive, always knows what is right for the song and he never wants to overdo anything."

Perhaps the highest praise comes trumpeter John D'earth, who's played with Dave Matthews, Bruce Hornsby and Miles Davis. His Thursday night gig at Miller's Downtown in Charlottesville is one of Virginia's venerable jazz institutions. Harris has played in the band since his VCU days.

click to enlarge Two talented guys: drummer and vocalist Kelli Strawbridge, left, and drummer, keyboardist and bassist Devonne Harris work together in the funky, retro-soul project Kings. Members have performed or recorded with Kendrick Lamar, Nicholas Payton, Snarky Puppy and Dirty Dozen Brass. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Two talented guys: drummer and vocalist Kelli Strawbridge, left, and drummer, keyboardist and bassist Devonne Harris work together in the funky, retro-soul project Kings. Members have performed or recorded with Kendrick Lamar, Nicholas Payton, Snarky Puppy and Dirty Dozen Brass.

"Devonne is one of the best musicians I've ever met," D'earth says. "His perfect pitch is amazing, but I know plenty of mediocre players with perfect pitch. The thing I'm most impressed with in his drumming is his melodic concept. And he has a natural sanctity, the poetic ability to know that thing that is not just music but the deeper human understanding that music will access if you can get there."

However extraordinary his gifts, for Harris it is all part of being a workaday musician.

"If you are a hard worker, you don't have to tell people you are working hard," he says. "That is kind of why I stay away from social media, except to say if I am playing a gig somewhere. Other than that, I want to stay with what is in front of me. That's this room, and that's the road. It's just what I feel like any particular day."

The latest in Harris' extensive body of solo work, released under the name DJ Harrison, is "Hazy Moods" on respected Los Angeles hip-hop label, Stones Throw Records. Listening to it is like taking an aural vacation in a rapidly shifting series of vivid, electronic landscapes. His work as artist and producer blend seamlessly.

"I always want to balance outside sessions with my sessions, to take what we have done, or what others have shown me, and bring it into my music," he says. "I try to keep a fresh ear to the streets." If Harris' perfect pitch gives him the musical equivalent of photographic memory, the shifting vignettes are collages, cut-and-pasted bits of immediate and long-past experience, assembled live in the studio. Cannibalizing his own work has the dual charm of keeping his voice unique and avoiding copyright lawsuits.

Despite spending long hours in the studio, Harris still finds time and energy to get out and support the local scene — he's in the audience, if not in the band. And more and more he's on the road, especially with Butcher Brown.

The band is a leaderless collaborative built around the rhythm section of Harris, his VCU classmate and longtime collaborator, Andrew Randazzo, and globe-touring, powerhouse drummer Corey Fonville (of Christian Scott and Nicholas Payton). Marcus Tenney of No BS Brass and Tennison provides trumpet and saxophone. The youngest member, Future Prospects' Morgan Burrs, plays guitar. Last year it was easy to find the band honing its sound locally, but Butcher Brown's growing popularity has made local gigs more of a special event.

click to enlarge Devonne Harris and Reggie Pace of No BS Brass relaxing at Jellowstone. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Devonne Harris and Reggie Pace of No BS Brass relaxing at Jellowstone.

 "Being a musician means a lot, a lot of traveling," Harris says. "Being in a car. Being on the go, no matter where — Richmond, Pittsburgh, California — that is the musician lifestyle. You have to continually reinvent yourself with every solo you take, every song you write, every artist you produce. Sometimes it's great, but it takes a lot of energy. … You have to rest and recharge so you can keep doing it."

Harris takes a moment to stretch back on his control room couch. Just back from an exhausting, gig-filled and sleep-deprived weekend sprint to New York, with a lot to accomplish in the few days before an epic West Coast loop, it may hard to keep his eyes open.

But there's a smile on his face.

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