Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gene Harris: Another Night in London

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Another Night in London

Pianist Gene Harris had no peer.

If he had released an album that contained solely a 40-minute interpretation of “Chopsticks,” I'd have been ready to give it a five-star rating even before hearing it.

The self-taught Harris was playing at his church when he was 6, and so the style he developed was a combination of gospel and blues. Most jazz pianists are primarily one-handed; they play the melodic line, and solo, with the right hand, using the left for supporting chords. Think Count Basie and John Lewis (of Modern Jazz Quartet fame).

Others, like Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris, were equally adept with both hands, and could play different lines and meters simultaneously. And nobody — nobody — could swing like Harris.

During his early professional years, he headed a trio — The Three Sounds — consisting of piano, bass and drums; he later added a guitar to make it into a quartet. He was an in-demand sideman, and played with most of the famous artists until the late '70s, when he moved to Idaho and “retired.” He was a permanent fixture at Boise's Idanha Hotel for years.

Then bassist Ray Brown talked Harris into joining his trio, which eventually led to Harris fronting his own groups again. He recorded and toured extensively until the late 1990s, when ill health ended his career. He died in 2000,

This album, recorded live in 1996 at London's Pizza Express, is one of Harris' final releases. He's backed by British musicians Andy Cleyndert on bass and Martin Drew on drums, with Scottish artist Jim Mullen on guitar.

Harris' approach to jazz is demonstrated beautifully in the opening track, “Sweet Georgia Brown”: An opening vamp is delivered by guitar, bass and drums, then Harris enters with a softly voiced melodic line for several choruses, supported by subtle left-hand chords.

During subsequent choruses, the left hand becomes more dominant, and both hands more inventive, and everything builds and builds to a climax.

But it's not over: The arrangement returns to the softer, original melodic line, with a final second ending.

This album left me breathless, and wanting more ... and I bet you'll feel the same.

No comments: