Gene Harris

C. Michael Bailey By

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Gene Harris (1933-2000) can safely be termed the most serious populist jazz musician to perform in the last 50 years. He is among the most accessible and amiable of jazz pianists, who focused his superior command of the blues and ballads to produce some of the most enduring and enlightening jazz music ever. For these reasons, Mr. Harris has been largely overlooked and underestimated as driving force in jazz. For the uninitiated, this driving force was God in Mr. Harris' left hand.

Gene Harris was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan. After performing in the US Army Band during the Korean conflict, he formed a trio with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Bill Dowdy that was to define the face of Soul-Jazz, The Three Sounds. In this capacity, Harris was to provide the rhythm section for several notable musicians, including Nate Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Ernestine Anderson, and Anita O'Day. Mr. Harris and the Three Sounds (in a variety of configurations) recorded and performed into the mid-1970s when Harris went into semi-retirement at his home in Boise, Idaho.

In 1983, just when he thought he had been forgotten, bassist Ray Brown appealed to Harris to return to the studio and stage. His first recording out of retirement was Milt Jackson's Soul Route. From there, Harris joined Brown's trio for a score of notable recordings before leading his own trios and small groups through the late 1980s, recording for the Bay Area-based Concord Jazz. At the close of that decade, Harris was approached by Andrew Whist, then president of the Phillip Morris Jazz Grant, to lead an all-star big band on a world tour. This resulted in two superb big band recordings that, added to his earlier Tribute to Count Basie mark Harris as a great large band arranger and leader.

Throughout the 90s, Harris was given free reign to record how he wished. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD opined that Harris always ended up making the same record...but that was all right. Gene Harris' music always sounded as if it had a smile on its face as big as the one Harris himself wore while performing. That type of sunshine can never be dimmed. Gene Harris died on January 16, 2000 while awaiting a kidney transplant from his daughter. His beaming personality illuminates all through his recorded legacy.

Gene Harris and the Three Sounds: Introducing The Three Sounds (Blue Note, 1958)
The Three Sounds were a breath of fresh air blowing across the mean streets of Hard Bop as a more soulful bluesy character began to emerge from the Bop idiom. Harris, Simpkins and Dowdy paved the road upon which The Jazz Crusaders and similar bands evolved. Introducing... is the opening shot in a revolution.

Nat Adderley Quintet (Featuring The Three Sounds): Branching Out (Riverside, 1958)
Soul meets Soul when Nat Adderley stepped away from Julian, out on his own with the three sounds. Monk's "Well, You Needn't" gets a carousel treatment while "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" swings in a most unEllingtonian way. Andy Simpkins walks his way all across this bluescape with Gene Harris leading the way.

Stanley Turrentine with the Three Sounds: The Complete Blue Hour Sessions (Blue Note, 1960)
This is a wonderful re-release and expansion of the music of two titans, Turrentine and Harris, who passed away just months apart in 2000. Blue Hour is a relaxed date with some fine swinging moments. Harris is splendidly effective in a supporting role, as evidenced by this 1960 session.

Anita O'Day and the Three Sounds: Anita O'Day and the Three Sounds (Verve, 1962)
Again in a supporting role and with the Three Sounds, Harris provides an effective blues foil for the sassy Anita O'Day. Harris' full orchestral playing makes the trio mimic a small big band. Full bodied and sexy, a perfect mating of blues and ballads.

Gene Harris: The Three Sounds Live at the It Club (Volumes 1 & 2) (Blue Note, 1970)
One of the original Three Sounds, anyway. Live at the fabled jazz club, Harris translates his superb studio work into the kinetic atmosphere of in-person performance. Producer Monk Higgins provides several highlight compositions like "Funky Pullett" and "Sittin' Duck."

Gene Harris All Star Big Band: Tribute to Count Basie(Concord, 1987)
Grammy® Award nominated, Gene Harris' big band debut is a knock out. Ahmad Jamal's "Night Mist Blues" and Ray Brown's "Dejection Blues" frame the closest thing to Bill Basie that there may be. No mere imitation, but a loving homage.

Ray Brown: Bam Bam Bam (Concord, 1988)
Skip directly to the seventh selection and listen to a definitive reading of the Gershwin classic "Summertime." Harris explores all of the song's hidden treasures, breaking into a crowd-pleasing Albert Ammons boogie woogie.

Gene Harris: Listen Here! (Concord, 1989)
Perhaps the best of a very good lot. Listen Here reveals Gene Harris' funky nature with Eddie Harris' "Listen Here" and a rousing "Don't Be That Way." Ray Brown shows up to shore up the underpinning as Ron Eschete begins his fruitful collaboration with the pianist.

Gene Harris: Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 23 (Concord, 1992)
Gene Harris was the only performer in the history of the Maybeck Series to receive a standing ovation. Blues is the word here, as Harris provides several of his own such as the soulful opener "Lu's Blues." A wonderfully strange "My Funny Valentine" accents Harris' expansive personality.

Gene Harris Superband: Big Band Soul (Concord, 2002)
A twofer containing both of Harris' live big band efforts with the Phillip Morris Ensemble. Harris and the band ride the gamut of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" to "Like A Lover" to "A Child is Born." Gene Harris is sorely missed in the Big Band director's chair.

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