Allan Harris. Photo by Heather Sullivan.
There was a time when a radio station would play a wide variety of music, from rock ʻnʼ roll to big band and jazz. Some stations even threw in a little country depending on what demographic they were catering to. As a child, I enjoyed the diverse sounds that were constantly streaming throughout my house, and whichever song was last played stayed in my head until that melody was exhausted and my inner self replaced it with another, regardless of the genre. It could be a Duke Ellington, Beatles, Temptations or Jimi Hendrix song. As I gradually grew as a musician and ventured into the club scene to cut my teeth as a performer, it was clearly understood that the audience was of the same mindset. That mindset was to play everything that spoke to the energy and spirit of the times, and these were the times of civil rights, love and peace, the “Age of Aquarius” and “Do Your Own Thing.” There was no sampling of songs, no air guitar, and above all there was absolutely no lip-syncing unless one was portraying a character in a musical movie. But to relive the past I know is pure folly. I feel that in this context Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: "It takes a long time to bring the past up to the present."
My new CD, Open Up Your Mind, has taken me most of my adult life to bring to fruition. I donʼt mean the notes or the melodies that are locked within these songs, but the different voices I've learned to use to convey and depict where I have been and where I am now as a singer, composer and guitarist. These three crafts needed time to develop at their own paces so they could ﬁnally marry each other in one cohesive voice.
I was always further along as a guitarist, so that part of me had to be subdued for a while in order to nurture my training as a singer unencumbered. My growth as a songwriter needed time to mature, and that seemed to ferment the longest, because most of my songwriting stems from life experiences. It has taken me, well, a good part of my life to garner enough experiences such that I know what I am and feel what I am singing about in my songs. But the crux of this new project of mine is in its title, "Open Up Your Mind.” That is, to toss aside all the labels that have been pinned on my artistic lapel such as crooner, jazz vocalist, R&B performer, country singer - even rock guitarist! I wanted to wrap myself in the sounds and rhythms of my environment as a youth, the sounds of America and its wide palette of music, no matter how diverse or alien it might seem to those of us today who feel one genre of music is more sellable than another.
When ﬁrst deciding how to begin this project, I drew upon musical templates that were very familiar to me, starting with the Great American Songbook. I wanted each composition to tell a story. Not to educate the listener, or to showcase, as a New York Times music critic once penned, "a protean talent,” but to give the audience a window into this Native Son's musings and thoughts about love, politics and the place I now hold as a man of color in this social experiment called America.
As these songs were slowly being ﬂushed from the foliage of my psyche, I had the good fortune to call upon a stalwart partner of mine, a muse that has traveled these musical roads with me and knew, as well and sometimes better than I, what roads in my journey I should and should not travel. That partner is my wife, manager and collaborator Pat Harris. We have been working together on many projects including this one, on which she co-produced and co-wrote some of the lyrics. Others have been as diverse as Cross That River, ﬁrst a song cycle and now a musical weʼve written about the life of a black cowboy named Blue, who is a ﬁctional character based on several bigger-than-life unsung heroes of the American West. This project received a Chamber Music America Grant in 2007, has toured the country as a concert/theatrical performance and is scheduled to debut as a full-ﬂedged musical at Theatre Aspen in June 2012.
Over the years Pat and I have collaborated on productions and recordings such as: Long Live the King, a tribute to Nat King Cole live at the Kennedy Center; the Sothebyʼs Jazz Concert Series with special guests Tommy Flanagan and Cyrus Chestnut; the New York Musical Theatre Festival debut of Cross That River; the Songs of Billy Strayhorn; and tributes to Eddie Jefferson, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine. Next spring we will co-produce three concerts for the Tribeca Performing Arts Centerʼs Lost Jazz Shrines series, honoring the 52nd Street Jazz Clubs featuring the music of Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan (May 11), Nat King Cole (May 25), Bessie Smith & Jackie Paris (June 1).
We recorded the ten songs on Open Up Your Mind in between a pretty extensive touring schedule, and the one determining factor that contributed most to the projectʼs voice being true to its concept was: do these songs speak to the times that we are in now? That is yet to be determined, for the present is constantly changing. And although I'm not a soothsayer, I am a troubadour of sorts, traveling from stage to stage, interpreting only what I feel and see, and of late I see smiles and I feel the open hearts of the audience when I present Open Up Your Mind. The songs seem to speak to them as I hoped they would.
Visit Allan Harris on the web at www.allanharris.com
Pick up Open Up Your Mind at the iTunes store