David HARRIS – Blues I Felt – DLEE, 64:02, (3/17/17) ***:

(David Harris; trombone and vocals/ Shea Pierre; piano/ Jason Weaver; bass/ Miles Labat; drums)

An outstanding trombonist with a blues sensibility and vocal talent.

The instrument that achieved the greatest liberation in the first era of 20th century jazz was the trombone. Up until the innovations of Dixieland, the trombone had been a model of sobriety, ponderously holding down the low register in band and orchestral music. Suddenly, through a convergence of musical traditions in and around New Orleans circa 1900-1920, the trombone found a new voice (aided considerably by the use of the plunger mute), becoming wildly celebratory, mischievous, and imbued with the vocal inflextions of the blues. While the trombone would find its place in modern jazz, it would never again enjoy such royal prestige.

It is to this golden age of blues trombone jazz that David Harris takes us in his fine debut CD “Blues I Felt.” The boisterous growls of Miff Mole and the buttery glissandos of Kid Ory and Higginbotham are referenced throughout as Harris adapts the earlier style to a more conventional modern jazz quartet concept. Harris’ bandmates are talented young products of the Oberlin Jazz program. Pianist Shea Pierre’s command of all styles from honky-tonk noodling to bebop velocity testifies to the excellent pedagogy of that institution. Miles Labat restricts himself to modern jazz idiom on the drum kit, which he plays adroitly. That said, this critic would have loved some pared down snare-drumming in the jump band tradition. If somewhat diffident, the bassist, Jason Weaver, is competent throughout.

The leader contributes a number of original charts to the session. “Pisces Dream” is the most ambitious and brings out the best in the well-prepared ensemble. The imposing tone of the brass contrasts nicely with delicate interactions in the rhythm section. Shea Pierre plays a thoughtful and elegant solo full of pianissimo effects and understatements. The title track likewise showcases Mr. Harris as a deft composer. However, the heart of the record is a demonstration of the blues tradition as expressed in the traditional style. “Mood Indigo” allows for a lengthy display of the plunger as the drowsy rhythms sway to gospel groove. “There Will Be a Time” and “Old Man Speaks” work the same territory in terms of instrumentation.

My only caveat is that Mr. Harris, who has played played in a wide variety of modern jazz contexts, has used this debut record to showcase his vocal talents and songwriting ambitions. While his loyalties to his Louisiana roots are expressed with charm and authority, his attempt to weld this tradition to a pop crooner sensibility are not entirely successful. He is a skilled singer with a Nat King Cole honeyed voice, yet the lyrics are not especially memorable, nor is the singing consistently engaging.

Overall, the record is an odd marriage of styles and genres. Students of the trombone will surely enjoy it and might well be motivated to hurry down to the hardware store for the indispensable toilet plunger. Fans of vocal jazz may find a an agreeable rapport between this artist’s expressive trombone playing and exceedingly smooth crooning. Others might see this as a debut introducing a worthy artist worth keeping an eye on, but likely to make a better second record.

TrackList: A Pisces Dream; Bein’ Green; Dewy’s Notion; Mood Indigo; DJ’s Induction; Old Man Speaks; There Will Be a Time; The Point to See; Moody’s Mood for Love; There Is No Greater Love; Blues I Felt

—Fritz Balwit