Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I grew up in a strict religious household, so when an upright piano – a gift from a church member – arrived at our house it was just a large and welcome new toy to play with. My parents had somewhat draconian views on children’s entertainment; consequently we had no television and only really listened to classical music. There are of course pros as well as cons in this approach but…
Thus, at the age of four years old, I (apparently) began to pick out tunes with one finger and it was quickly decided I should have lessons. These were kindly donated at no charge by the church organist, one Marion Mills. Although I had many kind and patient teachers over the years, Peter Crozier at Pimlico Saturday school, Peter Jacobs at Latymer Upper School and lastly John Irving and Danielle Salomon at Sheffield University, what truly inspired me to take up a career in music was being allowed to arrange for and direct the band in school shows.
Our school Christmas spectaculars, essentially lavish pantomimes, really were worthy of the ‘spectacular’ tag, played out to a paying audience of several hundred in our large school hall, brilliantly converted into a theatre. To allow a 16-year-old to run a 20 piece band for the shows while he sat in the audience was quite a display of faith from our brilliant head of music – Shane Fletcher; so if I had to nominate one person as an inspiration it would be that light touch teaching that secured my fate!
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I’ve already mentioned many of the teachers who mostly looked kindly on my endless desire to improvise and managed in spite of that to instil the rudiments of a proper musical education into me! Being raised with the perpetual backdrop of classical music gave me a sound knowledge of most of the repertoire but a seminal moment was when my parents finally yielded to my sister’s and my cajolings and bought a small portable black-and-white TV when I was thirteen. One of the first things I watched entranced, after my parents had gone to bed, was a late night BBC2 show with Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. I was literally open mouthed (and eared). I had never known a piano could make sounds like this, much less that somebody could forge a career playing music other than Chopin! I obsessively hunted down all the jazz I could find and along the way discovered the cabaret genius of musical comedians such as Dudley Moore and Victor Borge (who also showed me that it was possible to make people howl with laughter using classical references). I can’t miss out other names such as Richard Rodgers, Bill Evans, Art Tatum and Fats Waller and the wit of French impressionists such as Satie and Milhaud.
Lastly, although not directly musical influences, I must also mention two performers that I worked with for over a decade. A large part of being a cabaret artist is one’s ability to recount stories and give context to the music on stage, an area in which I was resoundingly absent of talent. A brilliant performer I accompanied for fifteen years was a singer called James Biddlecombe (Biddie). Described as the uncrowned king of the cabaret scene in London, he championed obscure old songs that nobody had heard of and to this day I have never witnessed an audience in such paroxysms of tearful mirth as he managed to regularly engender. Watching him and another act, larger than life magician Fay Presto, beloved of royals and celebrities, whom I also accompanied for many many years, I slowly and painfully learnt how to communicate on stage.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Being an improviser with a classical sensibility, I often find myself on the same programme as truly jaw-dropping international concert talent. Keeping one’s self together in such exalted company is a trick in itself. They are without exception always kind and express admiration for what I do but knowing just enough to know quite how brilliant they are really can be enough to freeze the blood in one’s veins. The first time I went on Radio 3 taking live requests to play anything in any composer’s style, I was literally shaking. Recounting this to a friend afterwards he asked innocently “Why were you so worried? There’s only one man and his dog listening to Radio 3 at any given time.” Patiently I had to explain to him “Yes, but even the dog has a doctorate in ethno-musicology”.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I have recorded two albums – ‘In the wrong key’ and ‘All the way through’ – both of which I regard reasonably proudly, but my output will never be judged by recordings. My proudest moments are getting on a really good roll in an improvised Bach invention or during something very silly like Postman Pat in the style of Rachmaninov, hearing the audience reaction change from laughter to engagement as you fuse low and high art and for a few glorious seconds it comes off and becomes an entity of its own. Audiences always know those rare and special moments when you channel something perfectly in a composer’s style for a brief moment. You don’t have to explain it.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
What is your most memorable concert experience?
If I may take the liberty of combining these four questions… To explain: these questions fall into a different category for myself compared to a classical performer. Performances with Alexander Armstrong where I was musical director and arranger linger fondly in the memory, particularly one at the Palladium. Also an end of year review playing solo cabaret to a packed Birmingham Symphony Hall for Raymond Gubbay was a wonderful experience. My favourite performance and venue are probably one and the same – a charity gala at the Royal Albert Hall for SOS villages, an organisation working against the spread of AIDS in Africa. That venue is a seminal one for me – redolent with so many memories from my introductions to the Proms with my parents. The fact that they were sat in the front row whilst I took the host’s Aled Jones request to play Kylie Minogue ‘I should be so lucky’ in the style of Wagner (only request I can remember) and the consequent laughter echoing around the Albert Hall is something I shall never forget.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Ultimately, music is all about communicating emotion. There are many different ways of doing this – interpreting the works of geniuses who have gone before in a respectful yet original way and profoundly moving all those that hear it is of course the most prevalent. However, I feel there is a space to play with all those references that audiences know so well and juxtapose them in a comical fashion. Although this is light entertainment, most of the time people sense when the fun is borne of a true love of the music and in amongst the laughter and silliness there is beauty too. So my definition of success is simply to bring joy to as many people as possible.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To show young students that improvisation is not a modern phenomenon or something to be scared of. It should absolutely be taught alongside all other musical knowledge – the principles therein are as old as the hills; Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all serial improvisers. It is my life’s mission to get some aspect of improvising onto the national curriculum as I passionately believe it improves listening skills, time, arranging and composing and the relation with one’s instrument!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It’s a toss up between one of these three (if you can have a three sided coin…!)
1. Walking around the Borghese gallery in Rome.
2. Watching James Anderson destroy an Australian batting lineup at Lord’s.
3. Tucking into a particularly juicy Times cryptic crossword with Eugenie Onegin on in the background.
Harry’s extraordinary talent and breathtaking creativity have earned him a reputation as one of the most gifted improvising pianists in the world. Celebrities and critics alike have lined up to shower him with praise often smacking of astonishment. No other musician can spontaneously reinvent Michael Jackson in the style of Mozart, recreate a night at the Groucho club through the TV themes of its actor members, and improvise a seamless medley of audience requests ranging from James Bond to Shostakovich via West Side Story.