When I first began my career as a jazz musician, I was fortunate to have three excellent role models: Nobuko, with her prodigious piano chops and her passion for work; Mary Parchman, with her gracious demeanor and rollicking, gospel-inflected swing feel; and guitarist Polly Harrison, one-half of the popular jazz duo Small World. Polly and her partner, drummer/vocalist Kyle Keener, held weekly jam sessions where they would encourage novice players to sit in and gain needed experience. Harrison kept rhythm and soloed beautifully on 7-string guitar, played bass pedals similar to those of an organ, and sang pitch-perfect vocal harmony. She knew a multitude of songs and could transpose them to any key on demand. At the time, I thought she was truly remarkable.
Years later, I realize I was only seeing a small part of who Polly really is: a jazz musician of great skill and integrity; a talented photographer whose work is shown in galleries and permanent exhibits; an intelligent, honest, and down-to-earth personality who is held in high esteem by the community.
It was many years ago when she kindly invited me to a rehearsal at the home she shares with bluegrass musician Hank Harrison. (I remember gazing in awe at three entire walls covered with shelves of neatly cataloged LPs; there must have been thousands of records, alphabetically arranged.) Other musicians began arriving, joking, sharing an easy camaraderie. Then, when rehearsal got underway, a subtle shift in group dynamics occurred: Very smoothly, without discussion or comment, Polly was in charge; everyone naturally looked to her for musical direction.
Her spouse summed up an important quality when he told me, "She manages to fit in with the guys without becoming one of the guys."
I recently met with Polly before her regular Sunday night gig at the Landing, where she plays with Keener on drums, Mark Nelms on bass, Morris Nelms on piano, and Ron Wilkins on trombone. It's a great listening room, built specifically for traditional acoustic performance — no amps allowed, just a well-placed microphone here and there. As we sat around tables made of oversized replicas of old classic '78s, Wilkins described Polly as "the consummate artist — very personable, highly professional." Her musical partner Keener said, only half-joking, "She's the real brains of this outfit. She makes everybody sound good."
"I love accompanying and playing rhythm," Polly said simply. "You can groove all night long, and it makes you feel happy."
Childhood piano lessons left Polly bored until her sixteenth birthday, when she got what she wished for: an electric guitar and amp. She couldn't wait to get home from school every day to mimic the music she heard on the radio and records. When she received two jazz guitar albums as gifts the following Christmas, Polly was hooked. She began listening to guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell.
Majoring in music education in college, she played guitar with all-girl rock bands and drums with the Marty Family Band, which included organist Mark Marty. Marty introduced Polly to her first mentor, East Side guitarist Sam Daniels, who had played with Wes Montgomery.
"He was such a nice guy," Polly recalls. "He'd play about five `chord` changes for every one I'd play. I used to literally sit at his knee and learn." Daniels would later refer proudly to her as his legacy.
It was at an Incarnate Word College theater party that she met Kyle Keener. "He sat in on drums with Mark and me, and we realized it sounded really good, so we started getting together to rehearse." The trio landed a six-night-a-week gig at the Petroleum Center Club. "Mark played the Hammond B3." Polly laughs: "We hauled that big ol' thing around all over the place."
When Marty moved on, Polly picked up pedal bass, and she and Keener went on performing as the Small World duo. Influenced by jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughn and Mel Torme, Small World's close vocal harmonic style was taking shape along the lines of groups like the Four Freshmen and Jackie and Roy.
Vocal phrasing influences her guitar soloing: "I'm fascinated with the way vocalists and horn players breathe between phrases, and I like playing like that rather than just a long string of fast notes."
Polly was also interested in the 7-string guitar and chord solo style developed by George Van Eps in the '60s. A major proponent of both was Bucky Pizzarelli, so Polly made the first of what was to become an annual trip to New York to see him play. After asking her to sit in with his band at the Café Pierre, the guitar legend invited her to his home in New Jersey. "I was flabbergasted," she recalls. "He told me, 'Take this train and this one, and I'll pick you up at the station.' He drove 20 miles to get me, and then we hung out at his mansion all day. He showed me some great stuff on guitar, and then offered to loan me one of his so I would have something to practice on while I was there." To this day, Pizzarelli remains her close friend and mentor.
"Swing," Polly told me as the musicians made their way to the stage for the next set, "is a pulse that everybody shares that causes a groove so tangible you can almost touch it. When everybody swings hard, it feels joyful, easy, effortless. The bass and guitar lock in with the drummer's high hat to form a triangle, like the A-frame of a house, that forms a solid foundation for everybody to float on."
On stage, Polly is the living embodiment of her own words. In one song's rubato introduction, she underscores Keener's velvety vocals with sensitively strummed jazz chords of incredible beauty and richness. When the rhythm section joins in, she becomes a physical depiction of the groove: her body sways, her head nods, her foot taps, all in perfect coordination. She doesn't just feel the beat; she feels its every subdivision. And when she solos, both her single lines and her chordal solos are tasteful and melodic — no flash, no trash, just pure musical substance floating on that solid foundation of rhythm. As I listen, I'm reminded of the photographs she showed me during the break, part of an upcoming exhibit of her work at Textures gallery: a streamscape shrouded in ethereal fog, a backlit close-up of a glass of liquid with rising bubbles forming a lovely pattern. Like her music, they are perfectly balanced, uncluttered, with lines and textures of pure beauty and substance.
SMALL WORLD QUINTET WITH POLLY HARRISON
8pm Sundays, The Landing
123 Losoya, 223-7266
POLLY HARRISON: A PARTIAL DISCOGRAPHY
Seasons of the Heart, Small World, Scat Cat Records, 1997
From the Heart, Sebastian Campesi and Small World, Scat Cat Records, 1998
Live at the Landing, Small World Sextet, Scat Cat Records, 1998
Amazing Grace, Sebastian Campesi and Small World, Scat Cat Records, 1999
Chinese Folksongs In a Jazz Mode, Mary Ann Hurst with Small World and Friends, 2000