Allan Harris: All Blues

NEW YORK CITY–For one reason or another, I’d never been to Dizzy’s Club, which is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, hard by the shops at Columbus Circle. (That’s one way of saying it’s in kind of a mall.)

allan harris

Allan Harris at Dizzy’s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I couldn’t have picked a better act to see there than Allan Harris, a jazz singer I’ve admired for a long time (but never seen). The New York Times calls him “a “protean talent” who “is best known for his takes on jazz standards,” and adds, “Mr. Harris flaunts his musical showmanship for the stage.” Here’s my interview with Harris in New York City Jazz Record. Go to page 6.

I’m fascinated by Harris’ musical, Cross That River, which was produced to sold-out acclaim on Broadway and still gets performed. Harris and I are both interested in America’s frontier, and his musical and my new book, The Real Dirt About America’s Frontier Legends, point out that African-American and Hispanic cowboys rode the West. At Dizzy’s, he pointed out that a very high percentage of such range riders were “people of color,” but it’s rarely dealt with in the history books.

allan harris

Harris picks up his guitar now and then. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harris is extremely relaxed on stage; probably because as a constant tourer, he’s on them a lot. Joking with the audience, calling out old friends, asking about a new baby, it’s all part of the plan. His wife is his manager.

In New York, Harris performed an excerpt from Cross That River, but he also offered his deep insights into those standards, including “I Remember You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I Wish You Love” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” I particularly enjoyed hearing the 1941 Johnny Mercer tune “Remember,” because I heard Chet Baker singing it on the way in to the city. Harris’ less wistful but still emotionally full version was just as good or better.

Harris also did some of his tribute to Eddie Jefferson music, including takes on Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” He’s right that Jefferson’s lyrics and vocalese for classic jazz tunes should be better known, and he’s a perfect interpreter of the material.

When he picked up his guitar and performed some of his own songs, Harris was more in the mode of a smooth blues belter, Jimmy Witherspoon, maybe, or B.B. King.

Kudos to Harris for hiring women (in the piano and drum chairs), and for taking the crack band on the road for an extended tour–to Italy, Sardinia, Turkey, Russia, London and Berlin, among others. And the group had just gotten back from Australia.

The protean Allan Harris deserves to be heard by a wider audience–and not just in the four corners of the world. Here’s a little bit of Cross That River on video:

Caramoor’s Bucolic Americana 2019

KATONAH, NEW YORK–Cellist Kaitlyn Raitz (half of Oliver the Crow with fiddler Ben Plotnick) went to SUNY Purchase, which is just down the road from Caramoor and just as bucolic, so she must have felt totally at home playing outdoors as part of the American Roots Music Festival at Caramoor June 22.

oliver the crow

Oliver the Crow: The day’s pick hit. But it was all good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is a festival that (like the similar jazz event coming up July 20) uses all of Caramoor’s beautiful groves and clearings in the woods for unamplified sets that merge with bird song and the sighing of the wind. If you want it loud, stay close to the main stage.

Oliver the Crow were wonderful, combining really strong singing and songwriting with virtuoso work on their instruments that never grandstanded and complemented all of the above. That’s the key to great music right there. The debut CD Oliver the Crow is out now. Plotnick quipped that Raitz, who has a Master of Music Performance degree from McGill University, “is wildly overqualified to play with me.” But in fact they’re evenly matched—and about to get married.

At Caramoor, OtC (now based in Nashville) combined original songs with traditional material such as “Bury Me Underneath the Willow Tree.” Almost all of the performers did that, in fact, and it’s a winning combination. OtC also played some very credible songs from people they know in Nashville, where every Uber driver is trying to make it as a musician.

porch stomp revue

Porch Stomp Revue was a teaser for the big event on Governor’s Island the next day. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Porch Stomp Revue featured artists from the event of that name, which took place on Governor’s Island the day after the Americana festival. I haven’t been to that one, but I loved the Porch Stomp we had closer to home here in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Black Rock section. What’s not to like about free music (singer songwriters and Americana bands) in the neighborhood, in people’s yards and on their porches?

The New York version of Porch Stomp featured Matheus Verardino on harmonica, vocals and foot stomps, plus the Nick and Luke duo (better on covers than on originals) and fiddler Cleek Schrey. There were dancers, too.

Youth in a Roman Field

Youth in a Roman Field featured three singers, one songwriter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Youth in a Roman Field (New York by way of Chicago) is new to me, a vehicle for ambitious songwriter Claire Wellin. The songs, which were nicely arranged by a well-rehearsed band (with three female singers), lacked hooks and catchy choruses and were somewhat obscure lyrically, but still went down easily. Wellin is a good frontwoman. She described one song, “Town Hall,” as written in Cleveland “about life cycles I hope don’t continue to be life cycles.”

I loved the Bumper Jacksons, featuring the big voice of Jess Eliot Myhre and banjo player Chris Ousley. Myhre herself plays clarinet, and she hooked up with trumpet player Joseph Brotherton for a rough-and-ready horn section that gave their Americana music some meat on its bones. Decent originals, well-chosen covers. A good time.

our band

Our Band was an international travelogue, with hot guitar and accordion, plus duo harmonies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our Band, heard in one of the glens, features snappy singer/guitarist Justin Poindexter and singer/accordionist Sasha Papernik. The band does State Department tours (and Poindexter works at global outreach for Jazz at Lincoln Center) so its sound is understandably eclectic. It ranged from nice duo harmonies on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to a Leonard Cohen cover (beautifully sung by Papernik) and songs from Brazil. In Poland, Our Band got urgent requests for Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” so they did that one, too. Their very sweet original song “Bright as You” is online with a stop-motion animation video:

California’s Rainbow Girls have been together eight years and have a shambolic chemistry onstage. Unplugged, they essayed lovely three-part harmony on “Tennessee Waltz” and more aggressive delivery for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’” I caught only a little bit of Damned Tall Buildings, both on stage and in a glen, and liked what I heard. Lots of energy there.

Rainbow Girls

Rainbow Girls, a California import, had a shambolic charm. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bethlehem and Sad Patrick stood out for the former’s huge voice and assured delivery. Patrick’s guitar was somewhat rudimentary. Maybe he adds more in other contexts. Bethlehem is going places, though.

Amethyst Kiah

Amethyst Kiah’s songs didn’t quite match the power of her voice, but she couldn’t be stopped on the covers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A tribute to Odetta was a fine excuse for a rousing sing-a-long featuring all the performers. Standouts: “Jack of Diamonds” by Damned Tall Buildings; “Cotton Fields” by Rainbow Girls; “Careless Love” by Youth in a Roman Field; “Make Me a Pallet” by Bumper Jacksons. The MC, as always, was an (uncredited) Mark Miller of the Spuyten Duyvil band.

But that wasn’t the end, just the pause before the headlining evening concert. At these events, I sometimes find the unknowns better than the big names, but both Milk Carton Kids and Amythyst Kiah were credible. The latter doesn’t write songs that fully exploit her incredible voice (they’re somewhat formless), but she really connects on covers like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Darling Corey.”

I’m eager to hear the album Kiah made with Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russel (of Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla, Songs of Our Native Daughters. The one original she did from it was powerful.

Milk Carton Kids

Milk Carton Kids combined sharp songwriting, intricate harmonies and dry wit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Milk Carton Kids were not what I expected. I thought they had techno elements, but maybe that’s only on record. Instead their live show had beautiful Simon and Garfunkel-style vocal harmonies on often-dreamy songs, extremely good guitar playing and really wry deadpan wit. It was like an updating of the Smothers Brothers.

By the way, if you like hearing Americana outside this summer, check out the continuing CHIRP series in Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, curated by the knows-what-she’s-doing Barbara Manners. What a great series of free Tuesday and Thursday night shows! I’m marking my calendar for C.J. Chenier (July 9), Hot Club of Cowtown (July 25), the Brother Brothers (August 1), Sam Reider and the Human Hands (August 6) and, again, Damn Tall Buildings (August 8).

Hot Jazz at Caramoor in Katonah

KATONAH, NEW YORK—Vince Giordano is about the same age as me, but his perspective goes much further back—long before either of us were born, in fact. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra are the leading band in the U.S. that is keeping the music of the 1920s and 1930s alive with loving recreations of period arrangements.

vince giordano and the nighthawks

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks honor the composer’s intent. No disco versions. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano is a stickler for authenticity. When he was five (this was in 1957, mind you) he heard 20s music on a wind-up Victrola, and has never been the same. Instead of Elvis, he was listening to Paul Whiteman. He’s a music collector as well as a sax player, and reportedly owns more than 60,000 scores.

It’s a treat to hear this music live, in good fidelity, instead of on beat-up low-fi 78s. I had exactly that pleasure at Caramoor’s “Hot Jazz Age Frolic” June 16, which featured Giordano’s band with singer Kat Edmonson and the great trumpet player/vocalist Bria Skonberg. Oh, and crowd-pleasing tap dancer DeWitt Fleming, Jr., too.

bria skonberg

Bria Skonberg (with sax player Evan Arntzen ) blows hot. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Skonberg’s first set was for kids, many of whom were darting around the music tent. It was distracting, but it didn’t last long. Skonberg is a committed educator, and took the time to explain jazz history and context. “Jazz was born in New Orleans,” she said. “And it came with rhythms from around the world, including Habanera from Cuba and Clave [originally from Africa but then] from the Caribbean.”

Skonberg’s Hot Five was in good form. Clarinet/sax player Evan Arntzen (also in the Giordano orchestra) was inventive, especially on clarinet, ad he was complemented by Devin Starks on bass, Chris Patishall on piano and drummer Darrian Douglas. They played material like “Joe Avery’s Blues” and “Stomping at the Savoy,” the latter a showcase for a great “conversation” between Skonberg and Arntzen. “Music is a language,” Skonberg told the kids. “The call-and-response makes it like a conversation.”

Skonberg is a double threat. She has a big brassy trumpet sound, out of Louis Armstrong mostly, and is also a strong singer. Her albums, particularly lately, have been getting more experimental, but in Katonah she was exploring the same 20-year-period as Giordano.

Even if it was for kids, the music was uncompromising and a lot of fun—Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing”).

Skonberg came out later for the adults, and got even hotter on numbers like, well, “Hotter Than That” (lots of nice blowing from Skonberg) and “When You’re Smiling…” (featuring inspired piano from Patishall). Arntzen can sing, too, and he did it particularly well on a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River.” Skonberg showed off her compositional side on the eerie and haunting “Down in the Deep.” Here it is in a studio version:

At intermission, we got to hear recorded 78s on Michael Cumella’s twin vintage wind-up Victrolas. They changed needles a lot. Cumella hosts a program of music taken from his extensive collection of 78s on WFMU in New Jersey.

Victrolas

The kids loved Michael Cumella’s Victrolas. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano gave us an ambitious “Rhapsody in Blue,” and also talked about the music. Have you ever heard of James Reese Europe? Serving in France as a lieutenant, he brought jazz to Europe during the First World War. Europe survived the war unscathed, but then got stabbed to death by his drummer in 1919.

Giordano’s music can be heard in Woody Allen’s Café Society film, and for five years on the Boardwalk Empire series. In Katonah, he had outstanding vocalist Kat Edmonson with him for a few numbers, as well as Fleming on such dance numbers as “Castle House Rag.”

Kat Edmonson

Kat Edmonson got into the period flavor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Poor “Putting on the Ritz.” Irving Berlin’s 1927 song had to survive both a disco version by Taco (a hit in 1982) and being sung by the monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. It was much closer to the composer’s intent at Caramoor. “West End Blues” featured some fine solo work from trumpet player Jon Kelso.

The show was a prelude to Caramoor’s Jazz Festival, which is July 20 and features, among others, Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, Willie Jones III Quintet: Celebrating Roy Hargrove, Sammy Miller and The Congregation, Marquis Hill Quartet, Brianna Thomas & Danny Mixon, Lakecia Benjamin Quartet Plays Coltrane, Andrea Motis Quintet, Michela Marino Lerman’s Love Movement and the Isaiah J. Thompson Quartet. Jazz at Lincoln Center is a joint presenter.