By Ron Fassler . . .
Jazzman Allan Harris has been performing a long time. Watching his set on Christmas Eve at Birdland it was clear he exemplifies what Malcolm Gladwell describes in his best seller, Outliers, asthe “mastery which comes after someone practices one skill — like playing the violin — for 10,000 hours.” At age sixty-five, Harris has put in more than 10,000 hours for sure, and still manages to exude more of a “been there, had a blast” attitude than the more blasé “been there, done that.” Brooklyn born and Harlem-based, Harris has described himself as “a storyteller through the genre of jazz,” which was evident in his nearly 90-minute set. Backed by a group of excellent musicians, the night was dedicated mostly to holiday songs made famous by Nat King Cole. It proved as nice a way possible to ring in some Christmas cheer.
A singer and guitarist (though he left the strumming at this performance to Alicyn Yaffee, an expert musician), Harris treated the sold out audience as if we were guests in his living room. And considering that through the pandemic, Harris and his band have played seventy Zoom concerts, it makes a lot of sense. Led by Arcoiris Sandoval on piano (simply wonderful), Marty Kenney (bass), Norman Edwards (drums) and especially Irwin Hall (saxophone), this was one tight-knit group.
The song list reads like an album from the past by only the likes of Nat King Cole, but easily ones that might have come from Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney or any number of the great recording artists of the past. “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”… even “Jingle Bells.” And it was nice to see that the room wasn’t filled entirely with those who remember those singing stars, but were instead all ages and ethnicities, ready to indulge in nostalgia but with the twist of jazz that always keeps things contemporary. Close to the end of the evening, we finally got “The Christmas Song,” written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, and one of the biggest hits of Cole’s career. It was worth the wait by virtue of the smooth jazz arrangement that gave the well-played song some significant heft, but also managed to stay within the range of what made Cole’s rendition so special.
A highlight was “O Holy Night” done to perfection by Harris on vocals and Arcoiris Sandoval’s exquisite mastery on piano. Harris’s rich tones might have been a little tired from a previous show at 7:00 (this one began at 9:45), but his natural huskiness is part of his charm. He lent his scatting only briefly during “Blue Christmas,” famous for Elvis Presley’s rock and roll rendition from the late 50s, which offered a new take on an old standard.
Even though Harris and his band were flying to Italy the next day to perform in Porretta Terme, he didn’t want to leave the stage and his encores were welcomed. Closing out with a slow and simply dripping with jazz arrangement of “Silver Bells,” Irwin Hall’s sax astonished as much as it did during the show’s opening number “Winter Wonderland.” For more information on Harris’s CDs and concert tour dates, please check out his website at https://www.allanharris.com/home
The Birdland Theatre was the perfect spot to enjoy this holiday concert. Do yourself a favor and look into who else is playing before the year ends and beyond, by visiting them at: https://birdlandjazz.com.
And Merry Christmas!
Photos: Ron Fassler