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30 April 2024

Stepping out of the box, an interview with jazz singer Allan Harris

By Yiannis Karakasis MW

Walking into the cosy ambience of Travolta Restaurant in Athens, I couldn't help but feel excited about my upcoming chat with the world-class jazz singer, guitarist and songwriter Allan Harris and his wife, Pat Harris. He is known for his soulful, velvety voice, which, according to the Miami Herald, "projects the warmth of Tony Bennett, the bite and rhythmic sense of Sinatra, and the sly elegance of Nat 'King' Cole." Allan has carved a niche in music with his heartfelt melodies and timeless classics. As we settled in for our conversation over great food and exquisite wines, I found myself drawn not only to Allan's musical genius but also to his warm personality and passion for jazz. 

Yiannis: So, Allan, I'm curious: what do you consider the pivotal moments in your career?

Allan: Ah, that's a great question. There were three significant ones for me. Firstly, it was my upbringing. My mother was a classical pianist, and my aunt was an opera singer. They'd take me to my great aunt's restaurant in Harlem, right next to the Apollo Theater. Between ages nine and 13, I'd often go there because tickets were free. I'd see legends like Duke Ellington and The Temptations casually walk in before their shows. It was then that I realised the extraordinary environment I was immersed in. Jazz wasn't just music in our household but a way of life. Another pivotal moment was when I was 12. Despite my mother's reservations about me playing guitar, my aunt Theodosia, bless her, bought me one and kept it hidden in her apartment. I'd rush home from school to practice. One rainy day, while heading to the barbershop, I stumbled upon a poster of Jimi Hendrix. The image of this tall, skinny black man in a white suede outfit with a psychedelic band and a white Stratocaster guitar was unlike anything I'd seen before. Hearing "Purple Haze" blasting from the barbershop only added to the magic.  

Yiannis: Jimi Hendrix certainly had a unique impact on music.

Allan: Absolutely. And the third significant moment came later in my life, around 1989-90. I was playing in a big band in Florida, and a friend called me out of the blue with an enticing offer. Sophia Loren was hosting a lunch party at a nearby resort, and they wanted my band to perform. Walking into that room was a surreal experience, as was seeing Sophia Loren and Tony Bennett at the table. Singing for Sophia's lifetime achievement celebration was an honour beyond words. To top it off, Tony Bennett approached me, and we formed a friendship that led me to New York. He invited me to stay with him at the Mayflower Hotel and introduced me to the city's music scene. It was an incredible opportunity that opened doors I could never have imagined.

Yiannis: Was he like a mentor to you?

Allan: He was more than a mentor. I loved him. I genuinely loved him. He was one of the sweetest human beings, just unpretentious. He was so independent that he would walk down Fifth Avenue, and people would recognise him and take pictures with him. He was just a beautiful man.  

Yiannis: So, I've got quite a few wines here to taste and introduce you. Not only to Greek wines but to other wines as well. This is the first time that I've tried this one. It's a pet nat, short for Pétillant Naturel. The French people refer to it as méthode ancestrale. So, it undergoes only one fermentation, and the wine usually retains a bit of residual sugar. They usually bottle it with the sediment without disgorging it. It’s very trendy nowadays. The wine we will taste is the first Pet Nat from Moschofilero variety and Bosinakis winery.  

Allan: This is very refreshing and smooth. I really like it. It can start wonderfully our ‘’light lunch’’ here. 

Yiannis: Allan, what is your favourite drink? Do you drink it at home or when you're out? Is it whisky or wine?

Alan: It depends. It depends on who I'm with. I have friends who enjoy single-malt whisky. It varies depending on the company I'm keeping at the moment. Because I've realised that everyone has their own preferences, you can learn a lot about someone's background and personality by their drink taste. Anyone can drink, but there are certain people, the friends I seek out, whose palates match the environment they're in. What I mean is they adapt their drink choice to the company they're with. I have friends who, when alone, exclusively drink whisky. But they're well-travelled and adaptable; they adjust their choice when they're with a particular group. Unfortunately, this tradition seems to have been lost on the younger generation. They feel they should drink what they like first before being introduced to something new. There was a time when, upon being invited somewhere, especially for the first time, drinking what your host offered was considered polite. Whether you liked it or not was irrelevant to their role as a friend. Does that make sense?

Yiannis: Absolutely. It's not only polite but can also open new horizons.  

Yiannis: Back to our wine, this is Moschofilero. It hails from a high-elevation plateau, around 700 meters in the Peloponnese. It's a floral variety with some residual sugar, and this wine has approximately 5 g/lt, which masks, in a way, the acidity. Are you a fan of acidity?

Allan: Not particularly. That's why I'm enjoying this.

Yiannis: Well, prepare for something quite powerful with high acidity. So, brace yourself.

Allan: That's alright. The fish and the langoustines will balance it out, which is good. I feel bad for my musicians, though, because I will have to fib to them. 'How was your lunch?' 'Oh, just some fish stuff, nothing special.' You know, that kind of thing.


Taramosalata and sea bream carpaccio at Travolta Restaurant

Taramosalata and sea bream carpaccio at Travolta Restaurant

Yiannis: How often do you drink? Alright, let me break this down into two questions. Firstly, do you usually go out to restaurants with Pat?

Allan: I try to keep it in check, especially on tour since I need to preserve my voice. But yes, I do enjoy drinking with friends. I need to familiarise myself with the concept of moderation. I think there's an internal gauge that lets me know when to stop before things get out of hand. I enjoy drinking for a couple of reasons. Firstly, for the effect, and secondly, because it allows me to share pleasant moments with others. I've noticed that you can learn a lot about a person's zest for life by observing their choice of beverage. People who have not travelled much or explored different experiences tend to stick to the same drink everywhere, which I find quite dull.  

Pat: We often go out together for meals and drinks. For instance, we've been on tours in Switzerland, exploring beautiful wineries in the Swiss mountains. It's always a delight.

Yiannis: Is this something you actively seek out, the food and wine experience?

Pat: Absolutely, it's something we're naturally drawn to.

Yiannis: What are your favourite wine regions? For example, if you visit Santorini, would you consider touring a winery there?

Allan: Knowing that Santorini boasts the oldest vineyards in the world? Absolutely, I'd be foolish not to explore that. However, I'd also be silly to claim expertise. I prefer to go with a knowledgeable guide who can introduce me to different labels. It's akin to someone attending my performances; they'd want to delve deeper into the experience. So yes, I'd approach it as a student.

Yiannis: I agree. When we visit new places, it's crucial to understand the culture. You must explore the neighbourhoods and observe their culinary habits and traditions to do that. It's about gaining a deeper understanding. And forgive me. I know you're a jazz expert, which we'll discuss later, but if I were to visit New Orleans, I'd want to truly understand its essence, dig deep, and remain open to its culture.

Allan: Ironically enough, some people grew up around jazz all their lives and still know nothing. Why? Because they stayed in this little box. 

Yiannis: The security of a narrow mind world?

Allan: Yes, because it's comfortable. It takes courage to step out of your box. We've visited many wineries with rich histories behind them, only to see that heritage lost because it wasn't passed down to the younger generation. Just like in music, traditions get watered down and diluted when you don't sit at the feet of the elders, whether you're making wine or playing jazz.

Yiannis: What you're saying is very, very important. Respecting the knowledge, the traditions.

Yiannis: Now is the time to introduce you to the taste of Santorini. Okay, and the taste of Santorini is perfect with raw seafood like langoustines or sea urchins. The first wine was an aperitif. We don't need anything. However, you could have something light with salads, with taramosalata. But here we have 100% Assyrtiko wine, the most famous Greek variety that thrives in Santorini. We have more than 200 recorded. 

Pat: I was very excited to hear all about Greek wine because it is one of the wines I know little about. I have experienced some Greek wines that I really like. That is gorgeous, I must say.

Yiannis: Let's talk about the wine. This is a wine from Santorini, 2017 and Hatzidakis winery.   

Allan: That is beautiful. Are these wines getting exported to America?

Yiannis: Definitely. Many Santorini wines are exported nowadays so that you can find them there. So, what do you think about the wine?

Allan: I love it. I feel the acid, but it is so subdued. It is there, but it's subdued. I love it, I don't know why.

Yiannis: Because the palate is rich, you have a balance; a lot of flesh balances the bright acid of the wine.

Langoustines at Travolta

Yiannis: So, what do you think about Greek food? Have you had any experience so far? You can both answer that.

Allan: Greek food has a freshness, especially with your cheeses combined with the greens and vegetables. That combination isn't overridden, like Italian dishes are, of course. I think Greek food has introduced the world to the Mediterranean palate. When you think of Greek food, you don't think of pizza. You don't think of salsa; you think about the vegetables.

Pat: You think about feta cheese, I think about cucumbers. I think about simplicity but about the herbs that come with it. It's always oregano. We eat a lot of Greek food in New York and have an excellent restaurant. It's right by Carnegie Hall.

Yiannis: Is it Molyvos? This has a superb Greek wine list. 

Pat: Spot on Yiannis.

Yiannis: Allan, what do you think about weird descriptors in wine? For example, this wine smells like wet forest floor, and these wines smell like gasoline, etc.  

Allan: People are not courageous enough. Let’s start there. They are not gracious enough to investigate and read on their own. They would rather have a marketing person tell them something that has nothing to do with what they really feel. This smells like this. This sounds like that. What does that mean? The same goes across the globe, labelling music, wine, fashion, whatever. People no longer have a sense of self. That’s a rarity.

Yiannis: My next question is, do you find parallels when comparing music and wine?

Allan: I have two answers. Regarding music and wine, let's start with fermentation. Artists need time to marinate their skills to truly develop their craft. This begins with having supportive parents who provide the atmosphere and opportunity for the artists to immerse themselves in their craft. It's like fermenting grapes. The parent plays a crucial role, acting as the harvester who knows when it's time for the child to learn from a teacher or to collaborate with other musicians. Rushing this process can lead to fractured development. Just as grapes must be picked at the right time, artists must mature at their own pace.

Now, onto the second part. How do you market yourself, whether in music or wine? It's about getting your story out there and creating a recognisable brand and style that resonates with your audience. Much like a winemaker who relies on tastings and articles to promote their product, artists must find ways to engage with their audience and leave a lasting impression. It's not just about making money; it's about sharing something meaningful that evokes a positive response. And while not everyone may appreciate your work, there's value in knowing that it speaks to those who do.

Allan: In the final analysis, the main reason I'm taking this adventure or why people listen to Allan Harris is because someone they know and respect has brought them to it. Even though they've never tried it, they trust the judgement of the person recommending it. That's why people come to my stage saying, "I've never heard you, Allan, but my friend brought me here." It's the same mentality as trying a new wine. People often don't take chances; they stick to what they know and trust.

Yiannis: I like that answer. Before I move on to the next question, I'm opening another bottle of wine. This one will be from Alsace, on the border of France with Germany and Olivier Humbrecht. Have you discovered anything new about wine, a region, or a variety you liked lately?

Pat: Wine was a revelation for me. I tried a fantastic white from Virginia in the United States and a red Chilean wine I truly enjoyed.

Yiannis: Now, for my next question. Is there still an audience for jazz music nowadays? I remember listening to jazz when I was 19; it was an amazing experience. But is jazz still relevant in contemporary times?

Allan: It's a battle now. Pop, rap, and country music have become the norm, designed for mass consumption. Jazz, on the other hand, demands individual attention and appreciation. It's not about quick hits or making money. Jazz is a genre that often goes unnoticed, yet it has a unique, timeless appeal that is often misunderstood in contemporary culture.

Yiannis: Poetry plays a significant role in your recent performances. I was impressed by how you introduced Shakespeare's Mark Antony's farewell to Caesar with your songs. How do you think your artistry aligns with poetry?

Allan: Poetry allows me to express myself in a deeper, more introspective way on stage. It's about revealing who I truly am as a person and an artist, which can be a vulnerable experience. But it's also incredibly rewarding to connect with the audience more profoundly through my art.

Yiannis: Thank you, Allan. This has been amazing, and yes, "Brutus was an honourable man..." Would you like us to open another bottle now? I have here an excellent Chardonnay from Patagonia, Chacra 2022, vinified by Jean-Marc Roulot. 

Allan: Of course. Always ready to enjoy the journey together.

Many thanks to Travolta Restaurant for their warm hospitality


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