With his gruff, gravelly voice, his penchant for hep cat diction, and the serpentine bebop turns of his vocalese creations, the late Eddie Jefferson might not seem the ideal match for a classic romantic crooner like Allan Harris. The Brooklyn-born singer has previously paid homage to the songs of Billy Strayhorn and Nat King Cole, repertoire that seems like a more ideal fit.
Until embarking on the project that became The Genius of Eddie Jefferson, Harris would have agreed wholeheartedly with that assessment. “In my wildest dreams I never imagined I’d tackle Eddie Jefferson’s material,” he admits. “But once I started to sit down with his material and delve into what he was singing, it blew all of my stereotypes and prejudices out the window. How wrong I had been over the years not to give this incredible genius credit.”
Not only did Harris discover the depth of Jefferson’s estimable talents and innovations, but he found his own way into Jefferson’s idiosyncratic takes on the classic solos of jazz giants like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The Genius of Eddie Jefferson, due out May 4 on Resilience Music Alliance, is an ideal blend of Harris’ rich, beguiling baritone and Jefferson’s bantering cool. The album follows Harris into adventurous new territory, at once embracing the challenge and making these bop classics as embracing and celebratory as his takes on jazz standards and swooning ballads.
Harris didn’t take the plunge alone. Though he’d previously covered Jefferson’s most famous piece, “Moody’s Mood For Love,” he needed to plunge deeply into the singer’s catalogue and methodology. Harris worked closely with pianist Eric Reed (Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride) and GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Brian Bacchus (Gregory Porter) to immerse himself in the tricky contours of Jefferson’s work. “It was daunting,” Harris says. “Sometimes it seemed like I was taking a master class at MIT. But I wanted to grow as a jazz vocalist -- I’ve done the American Songbook. No one has really tackled a full project of Eddie Jefferson’s with the type of voice that I have, and I wanted to get it exact.”
It helps to have a band that can provide the ebullient swing and fierce chops that can drive the tunes that Jefferson built his creations upon, and Reed assembled an ideal one: bassist George DeLancey (Houston Person, Tia Fuller), drummer Willie Jones III (Roy Hargrove, Arturo Sandoval), and tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore (Kevin Eubanks, Freddie Hubbard). The band is joined by special guest saxophonist Richie Cole, who worked closely with Jefferson in the singer’s final years, up to the night of his tragic death outside Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.
“To have Richie Cole there was a blessing from above,” says Harris. “His knowledge of what Eddie was doing was paramount because he was right there beside him. He not only gave me a pat on the back that was sorely needed, but he gave me a few pointers and a kind of permission to open things up a little bit to what I’m about.”
In his liner notes, writer and musician Greg Tate compares Jefferson to such pioneering hip-hop lyricists as KRS One and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, poets of the vernacular who could combine urban jargon and socially pointed messages. Harris agrees, saying, “Eddie Jefferson used the guise of his street language to create some really wonderful English literature on that stuff. Because his voice was so streetwise and rough, until you really listen to him in depth you don't understand that he was very erudite in his lyrical value. He didn't just rely on nursery rhyme rhythms and prose. He really dealt in some really hip street stuff.”
He also celebrated the jazz musicians whose work he was repurposing, often painting musical portraits of these legends through his lyrics, as on the album’s opening track, “So What.” Following the lines of Davis’ classic solo, he recounts a famous incident in which both the trumpeter and then-sideman John Coltrane left the stage mid-performance, deciding they needed a bit of extra rehearsal before resuming the show. Harris’ rendition is soulful and warm, vividly capturing the vintage nightclub atmosphere.
For all his protestations, Harris has no problem with bringing the grit and funky edge to Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and “Filthy McNasty,” or tearing his way through a blistering Lester Young solo on “Lester’s Trip to the Moon.” At the same time, he brings a heartbreaking tenderness to the classic “Body and Soul” and a down-home blues to “Memphis.” He courses along with bop vitality on Dexter Gordon’s lively “Dexter Digs In” and Charlie Parker’s gymnastic runs on “Billy’s Bounce.” His romantic soul emerges on Duke Pearson’s lament “Jeannine,” while Cole’s “Waltz for a Rainy Bebop Evening” is a wistful reflection on the music’s rich legacy.
Despite his initial reluctance, taking on Jefferson’s oeuvre has made an indelible mark on Harris as a singer. “This has tainted me,” he says. “This feels so good, like reaching a high. Doing Eddie Jefferson’s music has taken me out of the arena of being just the guy singing jazz standards in front of a smoking band, to feeling like a part of the band. It would be hard now for me to turn back.”
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- Allan Harris | “The Genius of Eddie Jefferson” | Available April 27 on Resilience Music Alliance - Vocalist Allan Harris Pays Heartfelt Tribute to Iconic Singer and Innovator of Vocalese with The Genius of Eddie Jefferson Available April 27 via Resilience Music Alliance With his gruff, gravelly voice, his penchant for hep cat diction, and the serpentine bebop turns of his vocalese creations, the late Eddie Jefferson might not seem the ideal match…
The outstanding and internationally renowned vocalist, guitarist and composer Allan Harris sums up his personal perspective on music in clear and straightforward terms. "There is nothing that I have found that defines and gives credence to my place in this wild and mysterious universe than this thing called music." Harris exemplifies that statement perfectly with his stunning new album Nobody's Gonna Love You Better (Black Bar Jukebox Redux), his eleventh album following on the heels of his highly acclaimed 2015 release Black Bar Jukebox.
For this, Harris takes an even more eclectic approach, drawing upon the wide range of music that he heard growing up in Brooklyn, and feasting on the expansive palette of the Harlem cultural landscape. "My new album captures some of the varied sounds and feelings that have shaped my growth as an artist. I had not one style to heavily rely upon when putting these tunes together, but only my young memories of music, people and events."
Nobody's Gonna Love You Better is a bold statement that builds upon the entire breadth of Harris' al-ready esteemed reputation, demonstrating his enormous versatility within the full scope of his highly creative musical vision. Swinging jazz, rich R&B, sumptuous balladry, wailing rock, rumbling blues and even a touch of playful Brazilian are all woven seamlessly into the tapestry of a musical odyssey that is all Allan Harris. With a deeply resonant baritone/tenor voice that is soulful, richly expressive and flawless in both intonation and phrasing, Harris displays a total command and fluency in every context.
Back from the previous album are the GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Brian Bacchus and Harris' longtime keyboard cohort Pascal Le Boeuf (on acoustic and electric pianos, and Hammond B3 organ), whose deep understanding and empathy for Harris' music creates a marvelous sense of intimacy and shared joy of expression. Pascal is also the primary instrumental soloist and delivers in an inspired fashion throughout. Joining Pascal in the exceptional rhythm section are Russell Hall on acoustic and electric bass, Shirazette Tinnin on drums and cajón, and Freddie Bryant on both electric and classical guitar. Together, with Harris also on acoustic, electric and resonator guitar, they provide impeccably flawless support, whether driving, embellishing, shaping or enhancing the settings as ideally suited to the intent of the music.
The delightful repertoire includes four Harris originals, a couple of American Songbook gems, a pair of jazz classics, and re-imaginations of hit songs from Jimi Hendrix, Steely Danand Spiral Staircase. Ashedoes with every lyric, Harris pays proper homage to those who have provided the inspiration for his own highly personal sound, specifically here to Ray Charles, Nat 'King' Cole and Eddie Jefferson on three individual items. On "I Remember You," Harris channels Nat (a subject of an earlier Harris tribute project) in a beautifully touching rendition with brilliant piano support throughout, as well as a solo that glides in the territory where Red Garland and Erroll Garner meet. "Ruby"--from the Ruby Gentry film score, and a major hit for Ray Charles--is satin-smooth balladry over an old-school swing-jazz groove, complete with Bryant's
Freddie Green-like guitar strumming. For the iconic "Moody's Mood For Love," Harris takes the concept of making an often-performed song one's own to an entirely new level, offering a totally fresh interpretation--in rhythm, phrasing and lyrical structure--to the Eddie Jefferson classic. The Stan Getz/João Gilberto hit "Doralice" is a deliciously infectious samba, sung by Harris in Portuguese, and featuring a fine acoustic solo by Bryant.
The three popular song re-imaginations include a somewhat up-tempo blues shuffle take on Hendrix' "Up From The Skies," with Harris in a neatly syncopated groove over LeBoeuf's funky B3. Pascal's Hammond organ sets a bright tone for a bouncy swing version of Spiral Staircase's mega-hit "More Today Than Yesterday" and Steely Dan's "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" gets a transformation (and relocation) from Americana to Harlem, shifting smoothly between brisk syncopation and atmospheric rubato.
The four Harris originals aptly demonstrate that he is as skilled a composer as a vocalist--and his lyrics are moving, heartfelt and poetic. The album opener "Mother's Love (Nobody's Gonna Love You)" begins on a poignant, emotive and dramatic note before morphing into a vibrantly swinging excursion. Its bookend closer "Secret Moments" is a lovely, gentle and lushly evocative ballad, while "Swing" is a powerfully syncopated and punchy romp. Provocative, confrontational and rousing best describes "Blue Was Angry (from the Cross That River song-cycle). Hard-edged, fiery and with a message of barely-controlled ferocity, it flies over a rip-roaring rhythm section and Harris' raw electric guitar. It may be unexpected by Harris' large fan base, but it's deeply emotional and on point.
Over the past 20 years, Harris has steadily developed his reputation as one of the finest vocalists of his era. Brooklyn-born and Harlem-based, he has forged his sterling credentials through his ten previous al-bums, covering a broad range of contexts, all netted together within the rich territory of the jazz tradition. In addition to his recordings, he has performed on a worldwide stage that has taken him to prestigious international festivals and halls in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as the 2012 Olympics in London. At home, he has toured nationally at festivals and top venues, including New York's Lincoln Center and D.C.'s Kennedy Center. He has received numerous awards, including the New York Nightlife Award for "Outstanding Jazz Vocalist" (which he won three times), the Backstage Bistro Award for "Ongoing Achievement in Jazz," the Harlem Speaks "Jazz Museum of Harlem Award," and the DownBeat Critic's Poll Award for "Rising Star Vocalist." Nobody's Gonna Love You Better (Black Bar Jukebox Re-dux) will continue to build his legacy as another milestone in the extraordinary artistic aesthetic of Allan Harris.