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JGT Talks To Grammy-Nominated Artist Rod Harris Jr.

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JGT contributor Wayne Goins interviews an exciting young guitarist that is highly deserving of wider attention, Rod Harris, Jr.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, this Grammy-nominated artist and Georgia State University graduate has checked all the boxes on his gradual ascent towards fame and fortune. He has a great ear for producing and arranging, and a ton of guitar chops to spare—ranging from bop to hip hop. We caught up with Rod in between the various gigs and recording sessions that keep him busy as ever.

Top Photo by Akiko Denise

JGT: You’re based out of Atlanta, correct?

RHJ: Yeah, I’m based in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. But much of the last decade from 2008 -2017, I toured the world with an R&B artist named Musiq Soulchild, primarily. But I also worked and toured with other artists, like Jennifer Holiday, R&B singer Monica, and other artists. Also for the past eight years, I’ve been the resident guitarist for Bishop Paul S. Morton at Changing A Generation Full Gospel Baptist Church here in Atlanta.

Rod Harris Jr. – Photo by James Riles III for Naturallyte photography

But you know, in the midst of all of that, jazz has always been the foundation and affinity. So, between doing all that I released my first jazz record—an organ trio record.

JGT: Any particular reason for that specific format?

RHJ: I wanted to do that first because that’s where all the greats started their professional careers—Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, George Benson…they all started with organ trios essentially. So that’s why I made the first record a tribute album in the same manner.

JGT: What’s the name of it, and when did you record it?

RHJ: It was in 2016, entitled The Counsel of Elders. I took a few songs from each artist and put my own spin on them. I did “S.O.S.” and “Up and At It” from Wes Montgomery; “Midnight Blue” from Kenny Burrell, “Jean de Fleur” from Grant Green, and “Clockwise” from George Benson’s Cookbook album. I also wrote three songs of my own on this project. The first track “Jimmy Speaks” is a nod to the great organist Jimmy Smith with whom all these “elders” recorded and worked with at some point in their amazing careers.

JGT: You’re solo on “Up and At It” is seriously burnin’, man, and “S.O.S.” is really cookin’, too!

RHJ: Thank you, I really tried to capture the essence of the masters.

JGT: I love the fact that you recorded quotes from George Benson and Grant Green interspersed through the album—it’s so cool to hear their actual voices in between the tracks. I especially love the long quote when Kenny Burrell spoke on the record.

RHJ: Thanks so much! I worked off of that record for a while—just doing mostly the “chitlin’ circuit” run in the jazz clubs in the Southeast. And it turned out really good, man—I got some good response over in the UK. It’s crazy because I honestly get more love internationally there than here in the States.

JGT: The Europeans have historically been known to be a very hip, highly intelligent, and active audience when it comes to appreciating and supporting both jazz and blues!

RHJ: Yeah, I guess it’s always been that way.

JGT: You received a Grammy nomination for your guitar work and musical contributions on neo-soul legend Musiq Soulchild’s album, Feel The Real. How cool was that?

RHJ: Yeah…it was an awesome achievement. I had invested a lot of time and energy into working with that camp [Musiq Soulchild] over some years, so to be recognized on that level was great. The songs I contributed to off that project were “Benefits,” “Let Go,” and “Simple Things.” It turned out to be a great record overall.

JGT: So what other projects do you have out there?

RHJ: A couple of years later, I did a record called Exits and Options, also known as X/O.

JGT: Okay, tell us about that album—was it in the same vein as ‘Elders’?

RHJ: Not really; the X/O project was more actually a therapy record for me. I had just finished my tenure with the Soulchild camp and decided to get back to making the music I grew to love. I grew up listening to hip-hop music before jazz so “Exits and Options” showcases a blend of hip hop records and jazz—you know,  I was born as an ‘80’s baby, but grew up in the’90’s. So I love hip hop music because that was the primary music at that time period, you know? 

JGT: What was your specific approach to merging traditional jazz guitar with the current hip-hop grooves?

RHJ: So I’d always wondered where these hip hop producers were getting their production material from and then came to find out that they were sampling all the jazz and folk and records of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s! So for this EP, I took those same samples and then reversed it and put jazz melodies on top of it.

The first track from Exits and Options is a tune I wrote called “El Presidente.” I used the iconic bass line from pioneer hip hop artist Eric B. & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat The Technique” and pretty much put a jazz melody over that. I also borrowed David “Fathead” Newman’s tune “Symphonette” because a lot of hip hop producers were sampling that tune.  I also recreated a tune I really dig by Herbie Hancock called “I Thought It Was You.”

JGT: Oh, I love that song so much—from the Sunlight album!

RHJ: Yeah, man. So you gotta check out my version of it. I didn’t do it as fast because, you know, Herbie’s version is more like a disco tempo, but I slowed it down. It’s really beautiful that way, and it has great lyrics too. Herbie actually liked it on his Instagram. He posted it just to show his appreciation for the way I did my arrangement to cover his tune. think you’ll dig it a lot.

JGT: I did check it out, and it’s seriously smooth and laid back—most people kinda forgot about that period of Herbie’s career, so I’m sure he was happy about that.

RHJ: Yeah, I agree.

JGT: What’s the story behind “Heartless,” one of the songs you included on this five-song EP? It’s a bit of a departure from the rest of the material…

RHJ: Me and [pianist] Louis Heriveaux came up with that arrangement of Kanye West’s “Heartless.” Kanye’s song was a huge hit around 2010 or 2011. In my opinion, he thinks like a jazz artist. I decided to “dirty up” my sound to capture the mood of the song and the arrangement

JGT: I love the way Louis plays on that—he’s a longtime friend of mine who I played with a lot when I lived in Atlanta.

RHJ: Yeah he’s an incredibly tasty player, and in my opinion quite underrated. We work together all the time…and I’ve grown a lot as a player while working with him.

JGT: You guys had a regular gig going, right? How did the pandemic affect your work in the ATL?

RHJ: Me and [pianist] Gary Motley were doing a residency at the Velvet Note, which happened to be the only jazz club in Atlanta, during the height of the pandemic. Right now, Louis [Heriveaux], Tommy Sauter, and I have a residency at the Whitley Hotel in Buckhead [formerly the Ritz Carlton] every Thursday. Also during the pandemic, I performed for a Blue Note NYC streaming event with the Royal Crunk Jazz Orchestra which is trumpeter Russell Gunn’s big band—I’d already featured Russell on the Counsel of Elders project. Always cool working with him.

JGT: Is that Russell playing on your recent single?

RHJ: Yeah, [Russell] Gunn, Terreon [Gulley] and Delbert [Felix] played on my re-imagination of Freddie Hubbard’s “Destiny’s Children.” That’s my most recent single. I released that in July of 2020.

JGT: You sound so much like that 70’s era’s version of George Benson when he and Freddie were both on CTI. Is that what you were going for?

RHJ: Yeah. I enjoy that period of Benson and Freddie, because they were just goin’ for it. Just really free and expressive. I wanted to capture that same freedom, but also add the modern element of this current generation and represent what Atlanta is known for: “trap music.” I really think it was a perfect marriage of genres on this version. And with the killer personnel and arrangement, I think people who don’t even really dig jazz can appreciate this version.

JGT: What else do you have out there?

RHJ: Well, I pivoted and did this relatively recent project with jazz trombonist Saunders Sermons, who also sings…he was like, ‘Hey man, why don’t we do a tribute to the Isley Brothers?’ And I always dug the Isleys, so I produced four songs and he dropped the vocals and “bone” on it. The cuts we decided on were “Make Me Say It Again,” “Midnight Sky,” “Sensuality,” and “Work to Do.”

JGT: The guest artists you have on this EP are quite impressive—who are they?

RHJ: Yeah, that’s Maurice “Mo Better” Brown featured on the trumpet on “Work to Do,” and a young lady by the name of Chelsea Baratz—she’s from Newport—on tenor sax on “Sensuality.” They both nailed the vibe on the project.

JGT:I listened to that  EP, and boy is it funky! It reminds me of how Grant Green took the same route and really found a way to marry the jazz guitar to the popular urban vibe.

RHJ: Thanks. Yeah, I’m just trying to bridge the gap between R&B and jazz, but still keep the tradition of jazz alive, man. Because I feel like…while there’s a lot of great music coming out of New York and other places, you don’t hear as much tradition in it anymore. And it’s just… to me, it’s losing the essence of what I feel like the ancestors really anticipated and really wanted, you know? It’s losing the blues, if that makes any sense.

JGT: I know exactly what you mean…

RHJ: It’s just my opinion, you know what I mean? Some people may think otherwise, but I feel like it’s losing the essence of the music, you know. So now I try to maintain some level of that in the stuff that I do.

JGT: What’s the latest thing you’ve released?

RHJ: I released a duo album with prominent Atlanta bassist Tommy Sauter entitled The 2u0 Ses2i0ns: Celebrating The Music Of Jazz Piano Legends. And I’m about to release another hip/hop jazz EP entitled Relevance, which features my friends Russell Gunn, vocalist Christie Dashiell, drummer Terreon Gully and some other cats.

JGT: Okay, so let’s do a little tech talk. What kind of equipment are you using—what guitars, amps…?

RHJ: So right now my current axe is the D’Angelico Excel. Before 2018 I was playing my Gibson 339 and ES-165, which was my main axe at the time. And that’s what I was using the most to record. I was wanting something a little smaller, you know—not as cumbersome. And then after doing a gig at Fat Cat in New York, my buddy Mark Whitfield says, ‘Hey man, let me turn you onto my guy at D’Angelico.’ So now I play a D’Angelico XL Mini, it’s like a mini-version of a 335 body.

JGT: Oh wow, I might need one of those!

RHJ: I love it, man. It’s really great. And then Bobby Broom turned me on to the Henriksen Blu amps. and between the two of those—the amp and the guitar—man, immediately people were like, ‘wow!’ They could tell the difference. And I appreciate the Henricksen because it just keeps the essence of the actual guitar sound. It enhances it a little bit with reverb and has got a nice band EQ on it, but it doesn’t make it sound too thin. It’s so warm—for a solid-state amp. It’s amazing.

JGT: I hear you’ve started your own record label?

RHJ: Yeah…lol. While the pandemic was rough on many, it really inspired me to be creative and find ways to really push my music career forward. So, my older brother and I started a record label called 5015 Records. The label is really designed to be more of an artist-driven label with less emphasis on the “status quo” sounds. More to come on that a little bit later…

JGT: I’ve really enjoyed talking with you, thanks for sharing your story with our readers.

RHJ: Man, I really enjoyed this interview. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to further introduce myself to the world. It was my pleasure.


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