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Baltimore musician on ‘returning’ to this year’s Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival

Posted on - 11th May, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Arts, Music, Preston News, What's On in Preston
Ultrafaux
Ultrafaux will be appearing at this year’s Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival

Has the sound of a plaintive saxophone playing the minor ii-V-I scale been absent from your life too long? Perhaps you’ve missed the subtle interplay of guitarists experimenting with the dissonant and the melodic with free-form abandon? Perhaps you just like a tune you can whistle. Well, fantastic news music lovers! The Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival is set to return later this month. 

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The festival, a product of UCLan and Arts Council England, was established in 2018 and quickly became known for showcasing diverse and internationally established talent. Previous festivals have seen well-received performances hosted far and wide across the city from Ham and Jam all the way to The Continental.

Although organised through UCLan, one of the stated objectives of the festival in previous years was community outreach; the festival had previously attracted local artists like Chris Davis and a host of local musicians along with internationally attended conferences on topics such as the future of live music.

While the pandemic has curtailed the majority of in-person live music, the festival organisers are presenting a series of acts in the form of streamed live concerts with digital tickets available through Eventbrite.

The festival opens on Sunday 16 May with ‘A Day of Django’, a series of performances paying homage to the legendary Gypsy Swing guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Closing Sunday’s event is Baltimore-based Swing act Ultrafaux. Blog Preston caught up with frontman Michael Joseph Harris to discuss the upcoming event and music in the time of Covid, amongst other things.

First, there’s not an obvious through-line from Baltimore to Preston; how did you first come to be involved in festival?

I met one of the festival organizers named Stuart Hampton Reeves at an annual Django Jazz Camp called Django in June in Northampton Massachusetts in 2017. We got along well and he remembered me when it came time to offer suggestions for bands to play at Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival in 2018.

I had toured in the UK briefly in 2017 with another guitarist I met at the same Jazz Camp named Lewis Dickenson. Lewis and bassist Pete Thomas from London joined me on a short tour and they would later be the musicians I chose to perform with me at Preston in 2018.

I had another offer to perform at the Preston festival in 2020 but that was postponed because of the pandemic so they opted to do a virtual version of the festival in May 2021. The benefit for me was I was able to feature my main violinist Jason Anick from the 2020 release Tangent. Jason lives in Kittery Maine but teaches at Berkeley College of Music. So I drove the eight hours up to his house where we recorded the video with two great local musicians he suggested.

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While clearly Ultrafaux’s music is Django inspired, in some of the arrangements and progressions Gypsy swing seems more a jumping off point. How conscious are you of staying true to the genre’s roots while also trying to push in new directions?

Ultrafaux Ensemble was most definitely Django Reinhardt inspired at its inception. I believe I first composed music in 2013 and released our first album in 2014. I had a rush of inspiration and really enjoyed writing music in the Gypsy jazz style. I still do!

The Django Reinhardt style of playing guitar involves particular use of the plectrum as opposed to fingerstyle guitar, which just didn’t call to me. Sure I played samba and various basic finger style techniques like the way Joe Pass uses it for his solo guitar work, but I always preferred using pick. There’s also a certain percussiveness about Django’s technique that I find very appealing and highly useful. I found that after adopting this technique I can apply it to any style from Latin and Brazilian to Waltzes. It really has become a totally new way of playing for me.

Some guitarists of this style of music, who have taken the time and effort to learn particularly the right-hand picking technique, understand how truly remarkable it is. Django Reinhardt has literally left us an incredible legacy and a totally different approach to the guitar, particularly the acoustic guitar. To me his technique is as fundamental as flat picking is to bluegrass.

The Django legacy doesn’t end with guitar technique. He also opened up the world of jazz to the guitar and found ways to incorporate all kinds of complex harmonic ideas on to the fretboard. Players of any skill level can access those sounds in solos and chord progressions just by studying the master. It should be noted that Django Reinhardt did all this without classical theory or formal education. It was all done by ear. This is also a big reason why he inspires others who may not have a formal background.

From my first beginnings as a guitarist at age 13 I felt naturally inclined to explore all kinds of world music styles. I remember going to see the Senegalese drummers in Washington DC when I was 19. I was completely blown away! Everything I’ve ever listened to or seen in terms of performance has made an impact on my playing. I led a band called Bossalingo for quite a while they played original compositions inspired by Latin and Brazilian music.

When I focused on Gypsy jazz in 2012, it felt like a natural progression. You know I don’t think Django Reinhardt really saw barriers between musical styles and I try to do the same. I feel equally at home playing many genres and styles.

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You’re four albums in at this point. Have you noticed a change in perception of how your music has been received these last few years, as there seems to have been something of a resurgence of music from the 20s, 30s and 40s etc., popularised by bands like Post Modern Jukebox?

Well, four albums in and I did make a change on the last one by adding violin clarinet and accordion. The first three albums were more about the two guitarists playing solos. I’ve always been proud of my compositions but some of the early recordings are hard for me to listen to, just because I kept growing as a player, both as rhythm guitar and lead guitar. 

Playing the rhythm guitar known as “La pompe” is deceptively difficult. Most people think it’s quite easy when they first begin but it’s one of the hardest things to do. I don’t think it was until I spent time with the better players in Samois at the annual Django Festival in France, that I learned to play rhythm guitar properly. Nothing replaces hours and hours of playing together with people who are really steeped in this style.

I played a lot of duo gigs early on too, which helped tremendously. There’s nothing like playing guitar duo gigs for a few hours every night to really hone your skills. It’s one of the beautiful things about Gypsy jazz in particular; all you need is two guitars and you have almost a full band sound including one melody and one rhythm instrument and then you can alternate to keep things interesting.

I plan on continuing to push the stylistic boundaries of whatever music I’m playing but I don’t do it intentionally. It’s just something that happens when I write. I hear all kinds of rhythmic ideas probably because of my early obsession with African guitarist Franco or Brazilian players like Egberto Gismonti and Toninho Horta. My 2020 release Tangent shows a bit of a departure from standard swing format and I think future releases will continue to include even more stylistic influences.

Michael Joseph Harris
Michael has managed to continue performing throughout the pandemic

I also very much like playing electric archtop and want to doing nice bluesy straight ahead album with some bebop elements. I also want to do a traditional Gypsy waltz album. There are so many things I want to do and players who I want to record with right now.

I have a friend in New York City who plays the Oud and I’ve been wanting to involve him on one of the Ultrafaux Ensemble albums. To be honest I also want to work with Latin percussion again because it’s such a credible feeling and sound to explore. Now that I have a better technique on guitar I know I could really thrive in that Afro-Cuban setting.

Oh and can we talk about all of the different traditional instruments I would like to buy? I want a cuatro, a Cuban tres, a Columbian tiple, a Brazilian cavaquinho, so many to explore! You know I recorded a lot of the tracks for Tangent with engineer Scott Vestal who also happens to be an award-winning Banjo player.

I’d like to somehow incorporate some of the virtuosic bluegrass players on the scene. There’s a real connection between Gypsy jazz and Bluegrass players. So yes, I’m looking into involving banjo, dobro, and mandolin on my next recording. 

Read more: Prestfest set to go ahead in 2021 bigger and better than ever

Unlike previous years, your performance for Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival will be recorded digitally. How smoothly have you been able to transition into the digital concert model that most bands have adopted through the pandemic?

Well I tend to be able to make lemonade out of lemons in life you know. I’ve had a lot of experience at it. When the pandemic hit I took it as an opportunity to try to reach people online. I’m honestly not very good at the whole video production side of things but I did manage to do some very good live streams.

Fortunately a couple of key venues in Baltimore city started to upgrade there live streaming equipment early on and we did some good work together. Places like An die Musik, Keystone Korner, and Creative Alliance brought opportunities to musicians during this time.

I also did a lot of outdoor shows, sidewalk serenades and private parties. Sometimes I would live stream from my porch and neighbours would stand around and applaud. Overall a very interesting year! Plus I wasn’t touring or travelling so I got to really bond with my daughter. She stayed with me primarily throughout the entire year from around March on.

I’m actually on tour right now as you’re interviewing me. My first tour that I’ve been on in a year. I’ll be in Nashville tonight for a live stream but most of the shows on my tour have been with a physical audience, both outdoors and indoors. I’m very grateful for the generous tips people have offered over this year. I was also fortunate to win a couple of grants from BOPA, Musicares, and MSAC, which helped financially.

The biggest challenge for me of the pandemic was releasing two new albums in March of 2020. All this merchandise with no shows to sell and promote. 

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What are your favourite memories of performing at Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival?

My favourite memory of performing in Preston was with Daniel John Martin. We had an extraordinary show together. I remember I contacted him a few times to prepare and he said not to worry and that we would sort it out when we met.

He came to rehearsal and I had a list of songs as possible tunes to play together. He took a quick look at the list said yes to a handful and off we went! He was so comfortable just flying by the seat of our pants and improvising so I think that inspired some magic moments. 

Who are you currently listening to?

I’m currently listening to Angelo Debarre, Fapy Lafertin, Matelo Ferrét, Django Reinhardt, Nashville singer Sierra Ferrell, Kansas Smitty’s band from London, and Bluegrass guitarist David Grier.

As (touch wood) venues are slowly but surely reopening, when can we expect to see Ultrafaux on these shores again?

I plan to be performing in Europe and the UK in 2022. 


You can register for the free streaming event ‘A Day of Django’ at Eventbrite.

For more information on the festival, visit the Preston Jazz and Improvisation Festival website.

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Will you be going to the Festival? Let us know in the comments.

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