In the opening moments of a set, jazz guitarist Zacc Harris knows he only has so much time to prove himself.
For even the smallest of audiences, he aims to breeze through music popularized by virtuosos of a distant era, storied players like Wes Montgomery, the master who many have sought to emulate. On stage, Harris makes his own mark on standards with enough new hooks to keep jazz alive — no easy trick in a time of short attention spans and computer-generated beats.
"We all, of course, have reverence and respect for where this music came from," said Harris, a co-leader of several Twin Cities jazz projects. "For anybody to be a great jazz musician you have to check that stuff out and learn how those guys did it and the vocabulary.
"But that doesn't mean the music has to live in a museum, where it has to sound like that. It needs to evolve because people want to hear new things — and I think that it's important for the musicians to keep pushing those boundaries."
This weekend, Harris will show how he breaks musical barriers when he debuts a new album at St. Paul's Artist Quarter, sharing original compositions that reflect a variety of influences, but aren't wed to any of them.
That he developed a unique voice will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the guitarist perform. In a show last week with the trio Vital Organ, he swept through a set of classic compositions — Montgomery's "Roadhouse," Milt Jackson's "SKJ" and "Airegin" by Sonny Rollins — in a rollicking dialogue with Jason Craft on the Hammond 3.
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But their battles on John Scofield's "Do Like Eddie" plus the Vital Organ tunes "Tippy's Theme" and "Stew's Blues" best showed how the players are adept at putting a modern and competitive spin on their exchanges — an art lost in modern pop, where instrumental solos have all but disappeared. The music, played before only a handful of people, was alive with rhythmic and modern intensity — and crowd-pleasing riffs.
For Harris, the show was a perfect tune up to his big debut Friday and Saturday, when the Zacc Harris Group will perform tunes from The Garden, newly released on Paradigm Records. Backed by pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Chris Bates and drummer J.T. Bates, he delivers a strong album of nine originals and a standard, "Softly As A Morning Sunrise."
The album also features saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, who performs with Harris in the Atlantis Quartet.
Although the musicians have worked with each other various projects for a while, Harris first needed to raise the money to record the new album. He found support in his fans, raising more than $6,000 through Kickstarter. The wait was worth it.
"I put this band together three years ago to record this album originally but there needed to be a process of growth together where ... we understood the tunes together," he said. "Of course I had to get the money together to record the CD too. It came quicker than the CD did. But that's an important thing, having a sound together."
Like a lot of musicians, Harris, a California native who came of age in Virginia, first tried to emulate great artists he admires. Working his way through Montgomery's tunes and solos helped take him from high school to Southern Illinois University, where he left school for a while to go on tour with Broken Grass, a jam band that fused traditional bluegrass with jazz, rock and funk.
But by the time Harris arrived in Minneapolis in 2005, he was still sounding a lot like another one of his heroes.
"I went through a very long, possibly slightly unhealthy Pat Martino obsession," he said. "When I first moved here, people could spot the Martino influence immediately. And that's great. I love Pat Martino and everything that I learned from him will always be a part of how I play.
"But I've tried over the last several years now to kind of get away from sounding like that. I want to sound like me now."
Harris, 34, found his sound through collaborations with a group of like-minded young musicians determined to push themselves — and their art — in new directions.
A key part of that growth came through his work in the Atlantis Quartet, a stirring ensemble that includes Wozniak, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Pete Hennig (who also plays with Vital Organ).
They're among several Twin Cities players who have developed an emerging contemporary sound, a blend of city tension and wide-open space. The musicians thrive, Harris said, on a collective approach that is intricate, vibrant, and improvisational.
"When you get a bunch of musicians together that play together a lot and share similar interests, which is partly why they play together a lot, then you start to develop a sound," he said. "I think that's what makes a group sound good is cohesion between the players, but [also] a certain amount of juxtaposition between their styles and what they have to say on a particular tune."
Developing distinct musical voices is no easy proposition in a storied genre that owes much to tradition, particularly when jazz masters defined how the instrument should be used. On the guitar, that means trying not to sound too much like Montgomery, Kenny Burrell or Grant Green. On saxophone, musicians have to avoid channeling too much John Coltrane, even if they all want to sound like him.
When the guitarist plays, Martino's influence, and his propensity for artful repetition, is still present. But Harris, who is growing rooted in the Twin Cities, is finding his own muse, and sense of place.
He conceived some of the compositions for The Garden as he went about daily life. The melody for title track came to him in his yard. Others are based on chord structures that provide roots for eventual melodies, songs that reflect — and sound — like the world around him.
"I'm a huge fan of the soundtrack idea, especially with this instrumental music," Harris said. "It creates this kind of environment. Within it you're doing whatever, you know. And putting together something that flows in a natural thing where somebody can kind of get lost for 65 minutes in that, doing whatever they are or just sitting back and listening is important."