Allan Harris at SMOKE Jazz & Supper Club

Peter Jurew By

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Allan Harris
SMOKE Jazz & Supper Club
New York, NY
September 28, 2016

Allan Harris was born in Brooklyn to a tight-knit family that loved music. His mother was a classical piano prodigy who grew up in Harlem and graduated in the first class of the High School Of Performing Arts, along with her friend, Arthur Mitchell, the noted dancer, choreographer and co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Allan grew up hearing a wide range of music, everything from Ray Charles and Dinah Washington to Brook Benton and Nat King Cole, to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as the gospel music of Mahalia Jackson. These facts alone don't make him different from many kids who grew up around music, nor does it alone account for how or why he developed into a superb, award-winning professional vocalist and composer. That took enormous talent, dedication and work. But the amazing thing about Harris and what makes him so special, almost visionary, is his mastery of so many different rhythmic, melodic and harmonic styles. Sometimes it's the music he absorbed growing up; sometimes it's the music he hears in his head—completely new music inspired by things he's learned, the best example of which is the all-original Cross That River, a 2006 song-cycle that anticipated by almost a decade the current Hamilton-inspired trend toward historically-themed theatrical productions.

In the past few years, he's decided to take greater advantage of his oceanic tastes, i.e., his "big ears," to deliver two albums that straddle—or, more accurately, transcend—musical genres and marketing categories. The image he used to christen this direction is the Black Bar Jukebox, an idea that took the listener exactly where Harris goes to find musical inspiration—everywhere there are songs he loves to sing and play and jam on. The tunes on that 2014 effort ranged from jazz standards to classic rock; Top 40 pop to Broadway, with a few tasty originals to boot.

He has now followed up that opening salvo with a new release, Nobody's Gonna Love You Better—Black Bar Jukebox Redux, continuing and broadening the category-defying concept. A stylist once described as "protean" by music critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times, Harris continues to knock down walls and boundaries on the new release, and he has the talent and ability to make it work. His smooth baritone can drop deep into Johnny Hartman territory on a Schertzinger/Mercer composition and soar high into Donald Fagen space on a Steely Dan tune. And he makes it all seem effortless.

At SMOKE Jazz & Supper Club in late September, Harris, backed by a tight trio, effortlessly showcased the new release in its entirety for a rambunctious mid-week audience of vocal supporters. Re-working the album's order slightly for live performance, the band opened with a swinging version of the 1969 pop tune by the Spiral Staircase, "More Today Than Yesterday," followed by a soulful take on "Ruby," a song Ray Charles originally sang in the 1952 film, Ruby Gentry. On the Joao Gilberto classic, "Doralice," Harris handled the Brazilian lyrics with surprising fluency, the rhythm section of pianist Pascal Le Boeuf, bassist Leon Boykins, and drummer Shirazette Tinnin supporting him in supple samba style. "Mother's Love (Nobody's Gonna Love You)," the opening track on the new album was next, followed by one of the night's surprises, "Any Major Dude," off one of Steely Dan's jazzier albums, Pretzel Logic (ABC Records, 1974).

Not long afterward came an even bigger surprise: "Up From The Skies" from the Jimi Hendrix Experience album Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968). At first thought, such a tune—a true deep cut of classic rock—seemed an odd choice even for a set of music seeking to knock down walls, hardly a song one would expect to find on a black bar jukebox. When I posed the question to Allan after the show, he explained, "Oh, man, when Hendrix came along in 1966, '67, he was beyond the pale. Everyone was just so blown away by this cat. He was so far off the reservation. But Jimi was about inclusiveness. And that allowed me to dream..."

Clearly, in the transcendent blend that is Allan Harris's musical soul, all good music is included on his jukebox. Moving from mind-blowing classic rock to lip-contorting classic bebop, Harris took on "Moody's Mood For Love" and made Eddie Jefferson's challenging scat lyrics and phrasing seem like child's play. Then he changed gears again, picking up his acoustic guitar to present a new arrangement of the emotionally charged "Blue Was Angry," a centerpiece of Cross That River and a welcome addition to the new album, and to the set. Two originals, "Swing," co-written with pianist Le Boeuf, and "Secret Moments," brought the swinging, moving and entertaining set to a close, the audience voicing its raucous appreciation for this stellar performance by Allan Harris and his band.

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