Vocalist Niki Haris recounts her sources of light for Vail Jazz
Faces of Vail Jazz
If you go …
What: Niki Haris.
When: Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., 8 p.m.
Where: Ludwig’s in Vail.
More information: www.vailjazz.org, 970-479-6146.
Doubtless for most of us, when we hear the word “soulful,” it calls to mind individuals such as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Gladys Knight or Peggy Scott-Adams.
It is also quite likely the most common adjective used to describe singer Niki Haris. However, according to Haris herself, the word means far more than the ability to express oneself vocally like a gale force wind, wailing melodically from the very depths of one’s body.
No … to Haris, the word carries a more literal meaning, particularly when she explains why she named her upcoming pair of performances at the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series a tribute to “the sisters of soul.”
“Maybe people will walk into the room and expect to hear a lot of R&B music, or a bunch of singers from Detroit or Memphis. But when I decided to call it ‘sisters of soul,’ it was about sisters who touched my soul, sisters who resonated in my soul,” Haris said. “Even though people call me a soulful singer, it’s not just because I can sing R&B. I’d like to think it’s because my music reaches them in a deep place.”
Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day Weekend at the annual Vail Jazz Party. A back-up vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has seen her front and center on stages all over the world and her recordings, ranging in genre from pop to jazz, R&B to funk, have topped Billboard charts.
When it comes to specifying who has touched her soul musically and how, Haris, who grew up outside in Benton Harbor, Michigan and currently resides in Augusta, Georgia, offers an immediate bank of inspirations, all of whom feel so familiar to her (in spite of having never met the majority), she lists them by first name like one would close friends. They are women whose songs call to mind unforgettable milestones and profound emotions.
Hey soul sister
“I might say, ‘oh my god, that’s the song I got my first kiss to,’ or, ‘that’s the song that made me feel so strong inside.’ These are people who chose to bare their souls and ended up touching mine,” Haris said. “Aretha, she’s an obvious one. There’s everyone from Judy, Gladys, Billie, Nancy, Whitney … I’m going to start with the women first. I’m going to sing from the soul, sing about things that touch my soul.”
Haris believes that singing from the soul is especially crucial during turbulent times. She notes that such expression has, historically, provided a guiding light through some of America’s darkest eras.
“The biggest movements in history are about turning to your soul, from the suffrage and civil rights movements, slavery … there’s something deep inside of people that calls them to action,” she said. “We are in a very auspicious time in our history right now. It’s time to be brave, to sing loudly, to speak boldly, to dance.”
The vocalist equates the human ability to tap into one’s soul with unleashing a glow that can brighten one’s own heart and discover one’s best self as well as cast warmth on everyone in the room … everyone in earshot. Her own ability to do this has been on stark display every time she steps onto the stage, in Vail especially.
“Sometimes I feel I’m coming down there as a crazy Baptist, I’m so into the music,” she said. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on. It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world.”
Enter the sisters of soul.
“I’m really lucky I get to do music that tends to change people’s lives, music that is about more than just coming to a concert and having a good time. I’m going to sing the songs of certain women and it’s not just soulful … it’s soul-filled. These sisters filled my soul. They filled my cup. In this high-tech, low-touch world, I hope I touch some people’s souls.”
Accompanied by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Mark Simon on bass, Paul Romaine on drums and Steve Kovalcheck on guitar, the powerful vocalist performs two sets that just might be life-changing at Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel. Seating is jazz club-style in Ludwig’s Terrace with full dinner and bar service available (a $30 food and beverage minimum applies). The performance will take place on Tuesday, doors open at 5 p.m. for the 5:30 p.m. performance and at 7:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. Tickets to each performance are $40. For more information, visit vailjazz.org or call 970-479-6146.
Session 2 of the three-part series focuses on finding a publisher and making sure it’s a good fit.