February 2004

Gene Harris - The Gene Harris Trio Plus One
Groove Note SACD GRV1019-3
Originally Released: 1985
SACD Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

There was a time when Gene Harris, who passed away in 2000 from complications due to kidney failure, was a member of the group the Three Sounds and stood among the top-selling jazz artists on the venerable Blue Note roster. Recording 17 albums over the course of 12 years (1958-69) brought Harris to the forefront of public acclaim, and kept his brand of funky, blues-drenched, soulful jazz coursing through the veins of jazz-buying music lovers everywhere. His retirement in 1977 (to Boise, Idaho, of all places) moved him from a place near the top of jazz’s who’s who list to a "who’s he?" stature.

But he was never entirely forgotten. In the early 1980s bassist Ray Brown traveled to Idaho and recruited Harris to become a member of his trio -- and that move got Harris a contract with Concord Records, for whom he recorded a staggering 19 albums (both studio and live) from 1985 to 1999. Groove Note’s reissue of his debut for Concord, The Gene Harris Trio Plus One, recorded live at The Blue Note in November/December 1985, is a real boon, both to the fledgling SACD format and to jazz lovers. It stunningly displays the formula that brought Harris so much popularity.

Harris is joined by Brown on bass, Mickey Roker on drums, and the great Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax (whose style fit so perfectly with Harris’s that it begs the question, "Why didn’t these two record together more often?"). This hybrid SACD should re-ignite interest in all of Harris’s recorded legacy. There are a mere six selections, so one might be forgiven for assuming there isn’t all that much to this album. You’d be wrong, for the shortest number here, the Errol Garner classic "Misty," clocks in at 5:31 and the longest, Ray Brown’s "Gene’s Lament," runs 9:18. The long playing times give the musicians more than enough time to stretch out and explore all the intricacies of each number. (And just wait till you hear what they do with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I doubt Julia Ward Howe imagined it could get this funky when she wrote it back before the Civil War.)

Sonically, this disc showcases all that’s right with SACD. The instruments are placed on a soundstage that stretches from speaker to speaker. You get a real sense of depth -- from Turrentine’s sax, which is front and center, to Harris’ piano, which sits slightly behind Turrentine, to the bass and drums that occupy the rear of the stage. And for those of you yet to dip your feet into the waters of high-resolution audio, rest assured that you can purchase this disc with absolutely no worries. Its hybrid nature will allow you to play it on your Red Book CD playback gear and enjoy all that the CD layer has to offer. You’ll just be missing out on the added fidelity of SACD.

There was a reason that (critics of the time to the contrary) Gene Harris’ records were some of the more sought-after albums of their day. His music spoke to the listener on a very basic level. It was music that spoke the language of the street, much as hip-hop and rap do today. It took elements from various facets of everyday life, such as the church, the music halls and the streets, and distilled them into a pleasurable musical experience that could be listened to on whatever levels the listener chose. The Gene Harris Trio Plus One reacquainted jazz lovers of the mid-80s with Harris’s style, and once again he became a sought-after musician. Now, with the advent of SACD and reissue programs such as this one from Groove Note, we have the opportunity to listen to and enjoy the music of Gene Harris once again, this time in superb fidelity. What more could you ask for?