Pianist Gene Harris was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on September 1, 1933 and died in Boise, Idaho on January 16, 2000. During the course of his career, be became one of the most popular jazz musicians ever. He developed an interest in music at an early age. Writing in “The Biographical Encyclopedia Of Jazz”, Feather & Gitler state that he began playing professionally at age 7 and had his own radio show by age 12.
Once he reached adulthood he led several groups and played with a large number of the best musicians around, including Ernestine Anderson, Benny Carter, Ray Brown, and many others.
Harris recorded prolifically, and picking out one “best” album from his entire body of work would be an impossibility. However, of the Harris albums in my personal collection, one stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that is the one I want to tell you about tonight.
A Little Piece Of Heaven, Concord, 1993
Harris was a magnificent performer when in front of an audience, and tonight’s subject album was recorded live: The 1993 Concord release, “A Little Piece Of Heaven”, recorded at the Ste. Chapelle Winery in Caldwell, Idaho.
The personnel for this recording were:
Gene Harris, piano
Ron Eschete, guitar
Luther Hughes, bass
Paul Humphrey, drums
“A Little Piece Of Heaven” consists of eleven songs, including three Harris originals. After a brief introduction from Carl Jefferson, president of Concord Records, Harris kicks off the show with “Blues In Baxter’s Pad”, one of his progeny. This is an animated song, with Harris giving us his usual hard-driving playing from start to finish. When Eschete steps forward for an extended solo we are treated to some might fine fretwork.
Billy Strayhorn’s classic, “Take The ‘A’ Train” is up next. Harris gives it a restrained opening, but neither the song nor the artist are given to being quiet for long, and in no time at all the group is rocketing along. Eschete and Hughes are burning up their strings, and drummer Humphrey pretty well beats the tar out of his kit. This song is, of course, very well known, and while there are no real surprises to be had, it is nonetheless a delightful romp.
The next song is another of Harris’ originals, the lively “Blues For Ste. Chapelle”. This is the shortest song on the album, and you will find yourself wishing it were not. Harris had a great talent for turning out infectious music that grabbed you by the lapels and held you, and “Blues For Ste. Chapelle” is no exception. The guys obviously had a great time with this one, and the audience ate it up.
I don’t know what inspired the next song, “Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me”, but I can imagine. Regardless, this lighthearted tune provides a bit of a change of pace from the previous three.
Jumping ahead a ways we come to “Scotch And Soda” from Dave Guard, one of the original members of The Kingston Trio. This is another somewhat quieter song, a step away from the stereotype for Harris. Guitarist Eschete again gets a nice solo and makes the most of it.
Part of the appeal of a live recording like this one is, you not only get to hear the audience reaction, sometimes you get to hear unplanned snippets from the artists themselves as they are overcome by the emotion of the music at hand.
Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes” is next. This has never been one of my favorite of Parker’s songs, but in the hands of this group it sounds great.
The final Harris original presented here is “Old Dog Blues”, a great jazzy-blues piece whose quiet outward face at the start hides a burning fire that burns deep.
This is one of those songs that was made to listen to through noise-cancelling headphones with your eyes closed so your entire psyche is wrapped up in the music. “Old Dog Blues” runs ten and a half minutes, and I guarantee that you will swear it only lasted half that time.
It’s not often that I run across a cover of a song that I like more than the original, but that is exactly the case with the final song here, which is an instrumental rendition of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billy Joe.” Stripped of the semi-coherent, poor white trash lyrics, this is a great piece of music. I think you will find that you like it more than you would expect.
Unfortunately there do not appear to be any online videos of any of the music from this album. That is a shame, because “A Little Piece Of Heaven” is definitely one of Harris’ better releases.
Those videos that are available that I might be interested in sharing are from another Harris album that I intend to write about later this year, so this article will just have to go videoless.
Needless to say, I feel confident that you will find this album to be a wonderful addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
You can learn more about Gene Harris and his music by going to the official web site of the Gene Harris Jazz Festival. His music is available online at all the usual places.
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Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.