Marilyn Harris: The Future Has Arrived

Craig M. Cortello By

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The title track to pianist/vocalist Marilyn Harris' Future Street (Wrightwood, 2004) details that magical avenue where all things are possible, where potential is realized, and where dreams can come true. Listening to her follow-up Round Trip (Wrightwood, 2006), a compilation of twelve songs featuring powerhouse arrangements and ten original compositions, it's clear that the future has arrived.

It is said that the reason that Vince Lombardi was such an outstanding football coach is that many of his colleagues were promoted to the level of head coach before him, prompting him to question whether or not his time would ever arrive. Consequently, when the call from the Green Bay Packers finally came, he had honed his coaching philosophy, preparation techniques, strategies and motivational skills to such a level of refinement that the entire organization took on the personality of a well-oiled machine, and ultimately that of a champion.

Like so many talented performers, Marilyn Harris' arrival is simply the culmination of years spent in the trenches as a jazz historian, writing music for television and film, as a jazz educator, and as a student under the masterful tutelage of composer Hale Smith. The result is a style and sound that exhibits greater polish than someone with a modest number of personal recorded works would typically demonstrate.

Harris understands the nuance of great composition and performance. On Round Trip she leads the band into modulation on "Letting Go," uses a tactical pause at the crescendo of "If That Man Walked Into My Life," displays wit and humor on "The Wisdom of Sam Kennison" and "They're Gonna Love Me When I'm Dead," and opens her heart to poignant moments and reflection on "That Afternoon in Harlem" and "I Don't Gamble (With My Heart)."

Some of the storylines on Future Street's songs include a poet with suicidal tendencies ("Dorothy Parker ), a strolling and playful love song ("Sunglasses in the Rain ), a humorous tale of the composer's nocturnal tendencies ("Insomniac ), and a tribute to her mentor ("Ain't Got Nothin' On You ). Hardly predictable. Clearly, this collection foreshadowed that this was no run-of-the-mill performer.

The range of emotions, sharp wit, playful nature of her performance, and hipster swing—"Wink-wink, I'm telling an inside joke and I'm inviting my listeners in to join the party"—elements are all qualities of her music that reveal an homage to one of her major influences, Bob Dorough. Dorough wrote the liner notes for Future Street and performs a duet with Harris on Round Trip's "Cool." Future Street contains modest, though masterful instrumentation, while Round Trip has a booming orchestral sound delivered by the arrangements of Mark Wolfram, another veteran who's done his share of "blocking and tackling" in the music business.

But the songs themselves are what shine through above all else, and Harris' tunes are a joyful experience. Those who simply skim the surface of the contemporary jazz vocalist annals might view today's selections as simply the songs of yesteryear re-packaged stylistically. That's why Marilyn Harris deserves a broader audience. Indeed, her songs have the feel of classics, even upon the first few listens. The sense of familiarity is pleasing, while the willingness to tackle obscure topics and unconstrained emotions is refreshing, so that the music feels comfortable without losing its spontaneity.

Harris is helping to forge a fresh new direction in the traditional jazz vocal genre, armed with the lessons and influences of the generations. She notes Dave Brubeck as an influence, and the timing of the title track of Round Trip seems to be a tip of the hat to the piano legend. The L.A. Jazz All-Stars Big Band shines throughout this collection. Harris clearly acknowledges those providing instrumental solo performances on her CD covers, a testament of her respect for fellow musicians and a practice that should be more commonplace.

When an entertainer hits the "sweet spot" in their career—one where their training, versatility, individuality, talent and exuberance for the vehicle of their expression come together seamlessly—it leaves fans savoring the exquisite flavor of their works, yet thirsting for another taste of the audible vintage. Let's hope that Marilyn Harris returns to the studio for a little musical fermentation in short order.

Selected Discography

Marilyn Harris, Round Trip (Wrightwood, 2006)
Marilyn Harris, Future Street (Wrightwood, 2004)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Marilyn Harris

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