Eddie Harris and his Varitone
“Listen – 1974 Blues MP3″
As of this moment, I am officially back in full blogging mode, sworn on my cape and secret decoder ring to keep to my appointed rounds posting quality funk, soul and funk-and-soul-related content thrice weekly unless of course felled by disease, an out of control city bus or falling space debris (included in the “acts of God” section of the contract).
While I can’t say that I am 100% my chipper, old self (yet), I am certainly in better condition than the last two weeks. I may even be ensconced in the eerie glow (artificial) in which I appear to be glad to be back at work. I can assure you that this will not last, and I’ll be good and cranky by Friday (if not the end of the day….).
Strangely enough, while I was ill, the Funky16Corners Blog had it’s best day ever traffic-wise, which I am unable to explain, unless the Vegas oddsmakers were taking bets on whether or not I’d return from my deathbed. Either way, traffic has been up, so I hope it was just a normal statistical jump as opposed to some kind of anomaly.
That said, as I type this I’m still unsure what song to post next. I have some good ones piled up here ready to go…. (walks away from PC…——comes back to PC)…
OK, a couple of the cooler things I have require a slightly longer-form post, which I can’t honestly say that I’m intellectually capable of at the moment. Rest assured that one of those will definitely see the light of day this Friday, when I expect to have my brain, fingers and magical ability to gather and express somewhat more complicated thoughts all back together and working like they should.
For now, we’ll all have to settle on something that while 100% groovy, may not push me over the cliff into one of my little rhetorical tornados.
In furtherance of that goal I bring you a taste of the wide and wonderful world of Mr. Eddie Harris. If you are not familiar with Eddie Harris it may be due to the fact that despite a level of crossover success that eluded many of his contemporaries, he was first and foremost a jazz musician. He was also one of the most stylistically flexible artists of his time, creating a long string of albums for the Vee-Jay, Columbia and most importantly Atlantic labels through the 1960’s and 1970’s.
His Vee-Jay period was by far his most mainstream, with 1961’s ‘Exodus’ (a cover of the movie theme) getting him a gold record (one of, if not the first for a jazz musician). He didn’t really hit his creative stride until signing with Atlantic in 1965.
I should stop here to mention that I (like many others, I’m sure) first heard of Eddie Harris via his 1969 live recording of ‘Compared to What’ with Les McCann from the ‘Swiss Movement’ LP. It’s a certified soul jazz classic, and ought to part of any respectable record collection (it seems to be in constant reissue, so if you haven’t dug it, get thee to the local disque dispensary and dig it).
That was the record that made me go further into the sounds of Eddie Harris, and I’m glad I did.
Back in the late 90’s, Atlantic producer Joel Dorn started a reissue label called 32Jazz, that put a bunch of quality music back on the market (mostly things that Dorn himself had been involved with). One of these reissues was a fantastic, budget Eddie Harris set called ‘Greater Then the Sum of His Parts’, which compiled four complete LPs (the In Sound, Mean Greens, the Tender Storm and Silver Cycles) that Harris had recorded between 1965 and 1967. To say that this was an eye opened would be a serious understatement. Though some of the earliest material on the set struck me as pleasant – if a little bland – as things went on it became clear that Harris was a guy with a lot of interesting ideas and the freedom to commit them to tape.
It bears mentioning that these albums contained a couple of genuine jazz standards that had been composed by Harris. ‘The In Sound’ included his original version of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, later covered by Miles Davis and Eddie Jefferson among others. ‘Mean Greens’ featured his original of ‘Listen Here’ which was also heavily covered (including a slighty rare and extremely groovy vocal version by Valorie Keys). ‘Mean Greens’ also featured Harris on the instrument that would become his trademark, the Varitone electric sax.
The Varitone was a system created by the Selmer corporation to add the ability to amplify the saxophone. It did that and a whole lot more, allowing the musician to add effects like tremolo and echo, and to exercise control over the tone of the instrument. It was a radical departure for sax players, and few took advantage of the instruments capabilities as much as Eddie Harris.
Of the four albums collected in ‘Greater Then the Sum of His Parts’, 1967’s ‘Silver Cycles’ was light years beyond the others. ‘Silver Cycles’ sees Harris with his ear fastened securely to the zeitgeist, taking his sax in trippy new directions while still rooted securely in a soul jazz flavor. It’s really something of a lost treasure that ought to be resurrected by open-minded jazzers, devotees of “head music” and all folks that dig cool music. While some of the cuts are decidedly far out, with Eddie and his Vari-tenor sailing through the echoey ends of the Milky Way (like ‘Silver Cycles’ and ‘Smoke Rings’), others like ‘Free At Last’ and today’s selection, the futuristically titled ‘1974 Blues’ keep things a little closer to Earth.
‘1974 Blues’ (why Eddie picked that particular year is a mystery) opens with a bouncing, latin-ish piano line that brings to mind his own ‘Listen Here’. Harris drops in with extended soloing on the Varitone, backed by interjections from a fuller horn section. It may not be a dance floor filler, but it has about it a certain loose groove that I find very satisfying. The mix here, pulled from a 45 is more than two minutes shorter than the LP version, but since we’re dealing with a groove here, and they didn’t cut out any bone-shaking drum breaks or crazy breakdowns out, the 45 edit will do nicely.
Harris continued to record for Atlantic into the mid-70’s, journeying far afield with forays into funk and even comedy records. He recorded in a number of settings for a variety of labels up until his death in 1996.
As far as I can tell ‘Greater Then the Sum of His Parts’ is out of print, but there is still a two-fer CD available that pairs up ‘The In Sound’ and ‘Mean Greens’ and a single disc reissue of ‘Silver Cycles’.