Those of you familiar with musical artist Allan Harris may think of him as a jazz man whose riffs circle melody like a territorial lover; a purveyor of rhythmic, funky R&B with whom you nod, bob, and tap; a blues man whose soulful sincerity communicates. Still others would testify he’s an authentic crooner exemplified by American Songbook bona fides; a warm, confident stage presence whose deep baritone effortlessly fox trots with sentiment.
Imagine my surprise when the early show at Smoke Saturday night turned out to present yet another facet of the entertainer, that of a creator of musical theater. Cross That River from which we hear a selection of songs, is a labor of love on Harris’s part. Produced professionally several times, it began as a song cycle, became a concert and is now in development as a musical. The piece is also available to schools for educational purposes.
Historically based, the tale of Blue, an escaped slave who joins the ranks of African American cowboys, describes a segment of our pioneer population about which we learn little and of which next to nothing is seen in classic Hollywood westerns. Apparently a full quarter of cowboys in the mid to late 1800′s were black. The west was freer of racism than many areas of our young country—or perhaps bigotry was turned toward American Indians.
I find myself reviewing a musical- with sketchy introductions and no dialogue—rather than simply performance.
The upbeat pop of the piece’s title song seems at odds with its formidable narrative: I know there’s a free place/Way across that river/Where wild ponies run and play/One day I’m gonna get there/If it takes me a lifetime/A lifetime of being a slave. Though lyrics throughout are often strong and poetic, the issue arises repeatedly. Vocal expressions of anger are borne on no musical tension, a sermon exhibits no influence of gospel or soul, a gambler’s portrait misses the opportunity to evoke a saloon. Instead of taking us on a journey, the composer seems to be scoring isolated songs, giving the singer one voice instead of each character.
There are certainly successful passages. The pretty bluegrass sound of Mail Order Woman makes it easy to imagine the harmony of future back-up singers. It’s simple, well crafted, swaying verse says what it means directly, from the hip. The tune relates to its subject. Cry of the Thunderbird takes place at the dramatic nexus of cowboys rounding up stray cattle, soldiers leading Indians in handcuffs, and a wagon train of ex-slaves in search of opportunity. A powerful image with “freedom” as the chanted chorus, this effective convergence might be a high point.
Guest vocalist Tony Perry delivers two songs with able voice and apt enthusiasm. His duet with Harris is an appealing tenor/baritone meld. Guest vocalist Cynthia Scott offers a number as Blue’s aunt, the matriarch of a plantation. Scott’s round notes and elongated phrasing reflect the character’s sparring with God.
The evening’s encore I Do Believe, is a stirring American anthem delivered with sincere wishes for humanity’s cooperation with one another. It’s a campaign song waiting to be adopted.
Allan Harris’s beautiful voice fills the room without breaking a sweat. Eyebrows and shoulders rise as he breathes in as if containing the music. Musicianship is superb, emotion palpable. The band is excellent, cohesive, and individually talented.
Cross That River is an ambitious piece about a worthy, interesting subject. Lyrics are evocative. Both vernacular and content are deftly handled. Melody and arrangement is extremely similar from scene to scene, however, with songs trying to emulate too many styles at once.
Given a CD as I exited, I made a point to listen after I wrote this review. Several songs evidence different arrangements faring better.
Smoke is an intimate club with good sightlines, a comfortable bar, and a menu tending towards southern specialties. I recommend it.
Cross That River
Music & Lyrics by Alan Harris
Allan Harris- vocals, guitar
Tony Perry & Cynthia Scott-guest vocals
Pascal Le Boeuf-piano
Smoke Jazz and Supper Club Lounge
2751 Broadway at 105th Street