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At the Heart of the Soul

[whitespace] Gene Harris In His Hands: Blues and soul influences mark all of Gene Harris' music.

Jazz pianist Gene Harris
takes his fans to church

By Nicky Baxter

JAZZ BOASTS plenty of players whose music can be described as soulful. Indeed, it can be argued that the best jazz is grounded in blues and soul. Pianist Gene Harris has established himself as one of the form's most dedicated soul men; recently, he has gone all the way back to the source of much of American music, taking his fans to church, as it were. His latest Concord release, In His Hands, displays Harris at his best. His performances at the TCI San Jose Jazz Festival and Garden City next week ought to prove to be soul-stirring, to say the least.

Harris' current music is not so much a change of direction as an affirmation of his roots. For the In His Hands date, he uses his regular associates (drummer Paul Humphrey, bassist Luther Hughes, guitarist Ron Eschete and guest percussionist Gregg Fields), plus "Brother" Jack McDuff (organ) and four singers. While tracks like "Lord I've Tried," "Amazing Grace" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" are heaven-sent, the album is equally immersed in boppish jazz and blues.

On the opening track, Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," Harris enlists pop recording star Curtis Stigers for the lead vocal and accompanies him with rumbling, blues-gospel piano. Drummer Paul Humphrey taps out a simple but effective pulse underscored by tambourine. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" finds Harris' buddy Pastor Ralph E. Beechum handling lead vocals; he sings in the finest black church tradition, exhorting his comrades to join him in his praise-song. Jack McDuff ducks in with a low-key but heartfelt solo; Harris sticks pretty close to the melody throughout, binding the circle.

"(Jesus Keeps Me) Near the Cross" is one of the album's highpoints. The Harris and McDuff duet is transfixing. Neither one attempts to steal the show; rather each feeds off the other's energy. Harris states the melody with a cloud-light touch, then McDuff enters sounding like a Baptist deacon inspired to play the church organ. The tune is taken at a deliberate pace, with each musician alternating leads; the flow from piano to organ is seamless; the two voices sound as if they emanate from the same place.

Harris, of course, has been on the music scene for decades. Early on he established a style that relied less on flash and dazzle than it did on swinging, effortlessly played blues. Unlike other more technically oriented pianists, Harris' music has always been accessible. Beginning in the mid-'50s, he led the Four Sounds (later one Sound dropped out, making it a trio). The group went on to record dozens of albums. Though the band split in the '70s, record bins abound with rereleases. Harris then joined the Ray Brown Trio, earning critical accolades. Subsequently, he worked with Benny Carter and has been featured in Concord Records' Maybeck Recital Hall solo series.

Harris is one of the TCI festival's 90 acts, slated to appear over five days (Aug. 5-9). The wide variety of performers features everything from Afri-Latin (Arturo Sandoval, the Omar Sosa Quartet Benny Velarde) to straight-ahead jazz (Regina Carter, India with Straightahead, Steve Czarnecki Soul Jazz Quartet) to blues and rock (Lady Bo, Buddy Connor). With nine stages to choose from, music lovers of all sorts will be able to find their groove.

Gene Harris performs Aug. 9 at 2pm on the Main Stage at the TCI San Jose Jazz Festival. Admission is free. (888/SAN JOSE). He also plays Aug. 9 at 7 and 9pm at Garden City, 360 S. Saratoga Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10. (408/244-4443)

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro.

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