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Cross That River

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Album Review

On his first four albums, Setting the Standard (1994), It's a Wonderful World (1995), Here Comes Allan Harris and the Metropole Orchestra (1996), and Love Came: The Songs of Strayhorn (2001), Allan Harris followed the career of a jazz-pop singer, earning plaudits from the press and from Tony Bennett along the way as he crooned "Lush Life" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in a voice that reminded many listeners of Nat King Cole. Most of that should be forgotten in approaching his fifth album, Cross That River. Harris still sounds a bit like a husky Cole, but he has taken a hard left turn in musical styles and in material. Simply put, Cross That River is a concept album about African-American cowboys, its ten songs all written by Harris in an acoustic country style. The first two songs, "Cross That River" and "Blue Was Angry," suggest a unified story about a slave in Louisiana just before the Civil War who steals his master's horse and escapes west. After that, Harris adds a series of story-songs on various related topics, one about "Buffalo Soldiers" (black army troops), and another about "Black Seminoles"; a "Mail Order Woman"; a gambler named "Diamond Jimmy" and his fateful encounter with his lover, Dancing Annie, and her new boyfriend, Mustang Billy; a "Dark Spanish Lady"; a "Mule Skinner" who was a homesteader until his woman was raped and killed, and he went in search of her assailants; an aging gunslinger reluctant to add "One More Notch" to his gun; and "Dat Dere Preacher." Many of these songs come off simply as Western ballads like those one might find on a Marty Robbins album, and Harris performs them in drum-less arrangements that emphasize acoustic guitar, violin, and other stringed instruments, most of them acoustic. The songs have a country lilt, sometimes with a bluesy or Tex-Mex feel. The work is of a piece, even if it doesn't quite add up to a single coherent story. And Harris clearly has bigger intentions for it. In the press materials, he speaks of planning to "write the next 10 songs for Part 2, finish the Novel, and start work on the Musical." It's too soon to know how all that will turn out, but Cross That River the CD is a good beginning, even if it will surprise the fan base Harris has amassed up to now.


Born: Brooklyn, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s

One of the top male jazz singers to emerge in the 1990s, Allan Harris sometimes sounds a bit like Nat King Cole but also puts his own personality into his spirited rendition of standards. He first recorded for his own Love Productions label and went on to record two sets for Mons: It's a Wonderful World (a sextet date with Benny Green, Mark Whitfield, and Claudio Roditi) and an ambitious effort on which he was backed by Germany's 54-piece Metropole Orchestra. In 2001, Harris paid tribute to longtime...
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