Music Preview: Allan Harris — A Soulful One-Man Jazz Jukebox
“Music is to be shared, no matter what genre it is. Make sure if you’re going to share it, everything you’re going to present to an audience represents what you are as an individual, and stay true to that.”
By Evelyn Rosenthal
To the smallish pantheon of today’s major male jazz singers—which most recently expanded to include the excellent Gregory Porter—it’s time to add one more: Allan Harris. Though his 2015 Downbeat Critic’s Poll award was for “Rising Star,” Harris is no newcomer. Since the 1990s the native New Yorker has wrapped his soulful bari-tenor voice around jazz standards and his own compositions on more than 10 albums and in countless shows, winning fans around the world with a warm, swinging sound and an appealing stage presence. He has dedicated well-received albums to the music of Nat King Cole, Billy Strayhorn, and the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans duo, and created a song cycle about the black experience in the 19th-century American West (Cross That River) that will soon be mounted as a musical.
What finally brought Harris to “Rising Star” status, though, was the success of his 2015 album Black Bar Jukebox. Inspired by the diner and bar jukeboxes of his childhood in Brooklyn and Harlem, where the disparate sounds of jazz, rock, pop, country, soul, and blues lived side by side on 45s, the album showcases the diversity of Harris’s influences: “My Funny Valentine” is given a funk/soul treatment; Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot” pulses with a Ramsey Lewis “In Crowd” feel; he even does a vocal version of “Stranger on the Shore,” the huge 1962 instrumental hit by the British clarinetist Mr. (yes, “Mr.”) Acker Bilk.
Now Harris has followed up with 2016’s Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better: Black Bar Jukebox Redux. This terrific collection includes fresh takes on the one-hit-wonder Spiral Staircase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” Dorival Caymmi’s bouncy bossa “Doralice,” Eddie Jefferson’s vocalese classic “Moody’s Mood for Love,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Up from the Skies,” and Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” Both Jukebox albums feature several originals; two on Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better are especially strong—the cooking “Mother’s Love,” whose refrain gives the album its title, and “Blue Was Angry,” a punchier, New Orleans-flavored arrangement of one of the songs from Cross That River. Boston audiences will get a chance to hear songs from the album when this exciting vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter visits Scullers on Saturday, January 14, for shows at 8 and 10 p.m.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Allan Harris about his musical path. Harris first discovered the power of his voice in the third grade, when it was his turn to perform in a weekly recital in his Brooklyn Catholic school classroom. His classmates started snickering when he began to sing the song his mother had taught him, the 1963 Bobby Vinton hit “Blue Velvet.” But then something odd happened. His teacher stopped him. “She said ‘stay right there’ and she ran over and got all the other nuns and the principal back into the room and had me sing in front of them,” he said. “And after I finished singing I looked over at the faces of all my peers and my childhood friends, and their mouths were open. So that’s when I knew.”
Harris grew up surrounded by music and musicians. His mother, Yohanna Chemina Ingram-Harris, was a classical pianist and member of the first graduating class of New York City’s High School of the Arts; his aunt Theodosia left the opera world to became a blues singer and was mentored (and had a child) by pianist Clarence Williams; and his aunt Kate had a soul food luncheonette down the street from the Apollo Theater. “As a matter of fact,” Harris recalled, “on Jimmy Smith’s album Home Cookin’ he’s standing in front of it. And I used to go there on Sundays because kids were allowed to go to the Apollo matinee. We’d go down the street to where my Aunt Kate had her restaurant and we’d eat and all the stars would come in—Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, some of the Temptations.”
Although best known as a vocalist, Harris started out as a guitar player. Here again his family was key. When a school friend got a guitar, he remembered, he became jealous. “My mother wouldn’t let me play guitar. She thought it was too sitting-on-the-stump colored music—she played piano. She came from North Carolina, then migrated up north right after the Harlem Renaissance. She really wanted me to learn standards, American Songbook and that. So my aunt bought me a guitar for Christmas and hid it upstairs in her apartment, and I’d go up there and sneak up and play it when my mother was out of the house.”
When he was around 11, a second “aha moment” sealed the deal. One day, coming home after school in the rain, he found himself standing outside the barbershop in his Crown Heights/Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, mesmerized: “There was a life-size poster print of this guy playing guitar, in a white leather fringed jacket, big ’fro, velvet pants, playing a white Stratocaster with his head held to the sky, and in front of him was a sea of white and brown and yellow and red faces, of people with their mouths open on this poster. Blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it before. And out of the store was blaring this music—‘Purple Haze.’ I lost my mind. I remember getting soaking wet, I didn’t care; I’d never heard anything like that before in my life. And I’d never seen a man of color like that. To see this picture of this warrior playing guitar just rocked my world. And that’s when I decided to pick up the guitar and just go for it.”
Starting in his teens, Harris worked as a guitarist in R&B bands in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Florida, even making a couple of disco records. But, he said, “I decided to get serious with my first recording, ‘Setting the Standard,’ in 1994. And that’s when I embarked upon this journey.”
The guitarist who sang became the singer who played guitar. He built a career on interpreting the American Songbook, in the footsteps of other great interpreters like Nat Cole and Tony Bennett, whose warmth and vocal characteristics he shares. He began to write and record his own tunes, including the genre-crossing Cross That River, with its country and bluegrass flavors. Though seemingly out of left field, it makes sense given that his formative listening included not only Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, and Billy Eckstine, but also country star Charlie Pride.
From there it was only a short hop to the “jukebox” concept: “There was always a jukebox—a big Wurlitzer jukebox—and there would be a myriad of music. It didn’t matter what was on there—could be jazz, rock, country, you’d be listening to Miles Davis, Johnny Cash. I was influenced by all that, cause there was no box—there was no “jazz” or “rap” or “country”—it was just music. DJs just played whatever was popular at that time. So I decided to bring that to the forefront of my listeners, and let them know how I was influenced by different styles of music. But I always kept the template of jazz underneath.”
To help him take the next step, Harris got together with veteran producer Brian Bacchus, whose projects include Gregory Porter’s Be Good and Liquid Spirit. Harris credits Bacchus with keeping him “true” to his own sound and style. “He’s listened to the same music I’ve listened to, and his view on where music is at in the development of an artist like myself—he and I see things exactly the same. He believes that music is to be shared, no matter what genre it is. Make sure if you’re going to share it, everything you’re going to present to an audience represents what you are as an individual, and stay true to that.” As part of the process, Harris explained “He studied me for a while, and he brought some songs to the table that I wouldn’t normally have done.” One of those, Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude” from Pretzel Logic, received a sterling overhaul with tasteful reharmonization and an ending drum solo by the talented Shirazette Tinnin that nods to another great Dan tune, “Aja.”
It’s not uncommon for jazz musicians these days to mine the material of their youth, and for Harris that would be the 60s and 70s. A classic of that era, Hendrix’s “Up from the Skies” already started out as a bluesy shuffle, and Harris’s version pushes it even further into blues territory, with band member Pascal Le Boeuf whaling away on the Hammond B3 organ.
Following another 60s stream, he added to the album Brazilian composer Dorival Caymmi’s “Doralice,” which appeared on Getz/Gilberto, the 1964 album by Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and Antônio Carlos Jobim that kicked off the bossa nova craze here and internationally. As a singer of Brazilian music myself, I wondered why he’d chosen a song with so many words at such a quick tempo for his first recording in Portuguese. The reason, it turned out, was personal. “It was one of my mother’s favorite albums, that bossa nova album. She played it constantly. There were six albums she played all the time, and that was one of them. And you could tell what mood she was in by what record she would play. If she was in a really good mood, she’d play that. If she was in a bad mood, she’d play something from Tosca or Madame Butterfly, or whatever it was. If she was in a real soulful mood, she’d play some Nat King Cole or Billy Eckstine. And that went for everybody in the household. Everybody had their favorite record; you’d walk in the door and you could tell what mood. So I knew that album intimately, as a child.”
His version lovingly echoes that 1964 arrangement, with Freddie Bryant sensitively handling the guitar duties. And there may be more Brazilian music in his future, as he mulls over a possible duet album with the superb Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. “We’ve been bumping into each other for years, and we keep saying we want to do a project together. I think I’m going to make it so, in the next year,” he said.
High on the agenda for later this year is a theatrical version of Crossing That River. Harris was invited to do a five-week run at the 59E59 Theaters, an off-Broadway theater complex, from November 25 through the end of the year. After workshopping the show in Aspen a few years ago with members of the road company of Les Misérables, he set to work shaping the book and turning the project into a full-scale musical.
And he’s hoping to revive a project where he teamed with vocalists Carla Cook and René Marie, cheekily titled “Two Skirts and a Shirt.” In their performances, the three distinctive singers dove into socially conscious material, including 60s classics like the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” and Gene McDaniels’s “Compared to What,” made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Given the current political climate, I’d say now would be the perfect time to resurrect that project.
For his Scullers appearance, Harris is bringing a band that happens to consist of all women. Giving his bass and piano players some time off after a European tour, he tapped pianist Miki Hayama and bassist Mimi Jones, along with regular drummer Shirazette Tinnin, for the gig. And no, he’s not calling it “Three Skirts and a Shirt.” This is not, he emphasized, a “novelty. “There is no glass ceiling in my band. I told them, whup me to death—you have liberties. Shirazette knows the music really well, so does the piano player—and they all know me personally. So I said don’t hold back, just have fun at Scullers. Yes, you’re performing in back of me, but I want us to feel as if we’re one.”
Evelyn Rosenthal is the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She is also a professional singer, specializing in jazz and Brazilian music. She writes about musical theater, music, and books for the Arts Fuse.