Singer Niki Haris discusses her years with Madonna and her Aspen debut at the JAS Cafe
IF YOU GO …
Who: Niki Haris and the James Horowitz Trio
Where: JAS Café at the Cooking School of Aspen
When: Thursday, Dec. 21 & 22, 7 p.m. & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $40-$105
Niki Haris was at Madonna’s side through the queen of pop’s many transformations from the mid-1980s through the dawn of the millennium. She was onstage for the “Who’s That Girl” tour, in the film “Truth or Dare” and in the iconic “Vogue” music video, singing and dancing with Madonna up through the “Ray of Light” era.
The lessons she learned at the top of the pop music world with Madonna were many.
“I learned discipline about creating your own vision and sticking to it,” Haris said in a recent phone interview. “And making sure that you’re living your own narrative, not judging yourself through somebody else’s eyes.”
The woman she knows and performed with, Haris said, is not the shrewd, trend-chasing Madonna we’ve heard about.
“People talk about how calculating she is, but I saw so many times when she would not do that and go with her gut,” Haris said.
Fourteen years since she stopped recording and performing with Madonna, Haris is still learning from her.
“I learned so much from her in the beginning,” Haris said. “Good stuff that now I go, ‘Oh, this is what she meant by that!’”
With Madonna, Haris played in stadiums and to some of the largest concert crowds on Earth. But she relishes the intimacy of playing small jazz clubs like the JAS Cafe, which afford a personal connection with an audience.
“I think more people who do stadiums should make themselves go and do small venues in the intimate cafe and cabaret style,” she said. “When you play to over 100,000 people, there’s something lost in feeling that you can physically touch people. In a more intimate situation, you’re more vulnerable, which the audience picks up on.”
The daughter of legendary jazz pianist Gene Harris, the singer said an intimate jazz club feels like a childhood home to her.
“It reminds me of when I was growing up,” she said. “It feels a lot more like family.”
A regular at Vail Jazz events over the last decade, playing traditional jazz shows and hosting a popular gospel concert, she’s earned a loyal fan base in the mountains. But this week’s shows mark Haris’ Aspen debut.
For her first performances here, which open the winter season at the JAS Cafe, she’s planning a straightforward show of jazz standards and selections from the American songbook, along with some seasonal tunes.
“We’ll keep it sweet and simple and Christmas-y,” she said. “We’ll throw a couple Christmas songs in there.”
In recent years, Haris has been chipping away on a collaboration with fellow Madonna back-up singer and longtime friend Donna De Lory, who toured and recorded with Madonna from the 1980s until the mid-aughts. They’ve released an EP and several singles together, recording whenever they meet up in Nashville or Los Angeles, working on what will eventually be an album appropriately titled “Two Friends.”
“We’ve spent so much of our lives together that we’ve said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Haris explained. “We’re just having a good time and taking advantage of the fact that we have an incredible story to tell.”
That project, like all that she’s doing with her music these days, is aimed at uniting people in a very divisive moment in history.
“It’s rude and crude right now, but it’s nice to call somebody your friend,” she said.
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