MOON TO GOLD
KARLA HARRIS AND THE JOE ALTERMAN TRIO
a review by Norman Warwick: editor Sidetracks And Detours
I think of Angela Carter, author of works such as The Bloody Chamber, as being as much a literary theorist as she was a writing practitioner. When I finally attended university as a not-very-mature student of 50, I spent my first year scribbling down some of her quotes and putting in brackets beside them, “I agree,” as if my validation counted in some way.
My favourite quote of hers is: “Most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode. “
I am knocked out, blown away and bowled over by an album released only a few days ago. I can hear readers sighing already, “Oh gawd, another re-release by a long-gone American singer-writer his readers have never heard of.” Well dear reader(s), you are wrong. In fact, the CD I'm going to tell you about about might introduce you for the first time to a contemporary jazz vocalist accompanied by a trio of top instrumentalists. I am pretty sure you will try to purchase it immediately, subsequently play it every day for the rest of your life and forever use it as a benchmark by which to judge others.
I should tell you first, however, that what I love about Moon To Gold, a debut recording collaboration between the Atlanta-based Karla Harris and The Joe Alterman Trio is that, for reasons I shall try to explain, it immediately put me in mind of that Angela Carter quote.
Karla is a jazz vocalist who has already enjoyed a career spanning three decades of singing the music she clearly loves. Her online biography tells us she has played from Portland to Provence and has performed in such well-known events as the Sarasota Jazz Festival and the Portland Jazz Festival as well as Jazz Festivals at Siletz Bay and Atlanta. She has been successful at The Nantucket Arts Festival and at Jazz Parties in Atlanta and the Oregon Coast.
Earlier this year, Karla, along with Joe Alterman, was awarded a distinguished Jazz Road grant through the South Arts Foundation. It is impressive, too, that she performed at a TED talk and performed with Joe for the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts as part of the ArtsAcrossAmerica performance series.
Fans of jazz singer/songwriter Karla Harris love not only her expansive vocals but also her ability to tap into the emotion of a tune, enabling her to deliver a tune fully, musically and emotionally. She is able, therefore, to deliver dynamic diversity and a sophistication to her music, whilst always remaining respectful of a song's roots.
It has been noted by previous reviewers of his work that Atlanta native Joe Alterman expresses a certain upbeat naivete, with a broad smile and bright eyes that make you feel welcome. One would not guess that this is a man hailed by greats; Ramsey Lewis describes his piano playing as ‘a joy to behold’, Les McCann states ‘As a man and musician he is already a giant’. Journalist Nat Hentoff championed three of Alterman’s albums, as well as his writing (Joe wrote liner notes to three Wynton Marsalis/JALC albums), calling one of Joe’s columns “one of the very best pieces on the essence of jazz, the spirit of jazz, that I’ve ever read, and I’m not exaggerating.”
Joe Alterman began at NYU with a BA and Masters in Jazz Piano, followed by performances with Houston Person, LesMcCann, Dick Gregory, and Ramsey Lewis. Downbeat magazine describes his sound as “rooted in the blues, and with a touch reminiscent of the great pianists of the 1950s—Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans.” It is clear Joe hits all of the necessary points for Jazz critics and fans alike.
But there is more to the story, of course. The 21st century has thus far seen yet another transition for this thing called Jazz. In one moment, we see the push and pull between tradition and progression, and in another we see Pop and Hip-Hop musicians emulating and sampling. In Joe Alterman we find none of this struggle; the music just sounds good. Our conscious faculties are instantly disabled as we tap our feet, feeling the intent and joy of his playing. An old classic is new when you feel good in the moment.
This fresh and joyful intent is captured on a recent Joe Alterman release, The Upside Of Down. Taken from two live shows at Birdland in November 2019 and February 2020, the album reminds us of a not-too-distant time when we gathered and danced. Joined by Nathaniel Schroeder on bass and Marlon Patton on drums, Alterman cruises gently and delightedly through timeless selections from Les McCann, Oscar Peterson, Henry Mancini and more, with some of his compositions in the mix.
“Joe Alterman is a breath of fresh air on the music scene. I love hearing him play! It’s happy music with tasty meat on the bones! Although much younger than I, he is an inspiration to me! His piano playing, his will to explore and his ability to swing is a joy to behold.”
– Ramsey Lewis
“Joe is tiny, but only in stature. As a man and a musician, he is already a giant. He’s on a ‘blow your mind’ level.”
– Les McCann
“Joe Alterman combines outstanding musical technique with infectious enthusiasm for his work. I’ve seen him fill a room with joy as his skill at the keyboard combines seamlessly with his delightful and appealing onstage personality. Young Alterman is one fine, first-class entertainer.”
– Dick Cavett
“All the musicians who are now considered jazz legends played there [Birdland]: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington, among others. Alterman would have been able to hold his own jamming with any of them…Alterman’s continually evolving presence on the jazz scene surely makes people smile and, if the room is right, dance.There’ll be no need for any last rites of jazz.”
– Nat Hentoff
“Joe Alterman is doing his part to keep alive the art of the swinging trio. He is a wonderful pianist whose playing brings smiles and good feelings to his listeners – as he has caused me to experience when I heard his enjoyable album.”
– Monty Alexander
“Joe is, for me, absolutely one of the most musically enjoyable, swinging-est Jazz pianists who can be heard playing today.
– Benny Green
“Festivals from Newport and Monterey to Rio and Nice should try to book Joe while they still can afford him.”
– Marc Myers, JazzWax
On this superb album, Moon To Gold, from Karla Harris we also hear Joe Alterman and his two fellow trio members, Kevin Smith and Justin Chesarek. Together the singer and musicians serve new wine and explode old bottles; it is all mischievously irreverent whilst remaining always respectful to the roots of the music. It is perhaps because it is the first time that Karla has recorded with the trio, and it is perhaps also because she and Joe have taken co-production credits on Moon To Gold, and perhaps it is because these are new names to me that I keep thinking of this as a debut album.
It isn't. There have been at least two previous releases by Karla, both of which I will be adding to my playlists.
Of the first of those two recordings, Certain Elements, it was said in one review that it ´glows with wonderment.´
It is a collection of contemporary jazz featuring original songs written by Karla plus beautifully curated covers, to create its unique aural quality. From Latin to swing, blues and contemporary smooth jazz styles, it features a list of talented musicians.
On another previous album, Karla Harris Sings the Dave And Iola Brubeck Songbook, with which, according to our friends at Jazziz, “The Brubecks would have been very pleased.” With lyrics by Iola being delivered beautifully by Karla, this collection of 11 Brubeck originals was another great example of new wine being poured from old bottles.
And so we come to Moon To Gold, and I am pretty certain that in my review below I'm making some pretty high claims as to why Karla Harris deserves to be at least as well-known and respected around the rest of the world as she is already in the United States.
Remember that it's likely my mate Steve Bewick, radio presenter and mix cloud maker of Hot Biscuits jazz, is likely to play her and mention her in an upcoming programme, so by tuning in to his show you will be able to listen to what it is I am raving about.
First, though, let me tell you, Karla Harris is the real deal! From the opening line,´It’s not the pale moon that excites me,’ I am hooked. In only eight words Karla has shown us the sweetness of her voice and that slight growl that underpins the softness of her purring. By the time of the high-hat and beautifully tinkling piano bridge on the Hoagy Carmichael classic, The Nearness Of You, I was making comparisons to Sinatra, but more of that later.
Blue Moon, a line from which serves as this album title, has funky bass, trilling piano and a rock steady percussion but no matter how wonderful that sound is, it never seeks to compete with Karla's vocals, but strives instead, and succeeds, in supporting them, and she certainly doesn't just treat them as a platform; instead she allows her voice to become another instrument in that orchestra.
There is vocal and musical intelligence here.
And by the way, there is a football team in the UK that has a crowd anthem that is belted out by 75,000 fans at each home game. Because that anthem is Blue Moon (the team play in blue!) I bet the fans would love to hear Karla's version played on the match day music service, or even hear her perform it live in the stadium before a big European match. Actually I would imagine she also could deliver a pretty stirring rendition of When You Walk Through A Storm to sing that adopted anthem to the Liverpool fans before a match, or in London she could perform I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, that song of eternal hope sung by 50,000 fans each week at West ham United. See, that's building a tour itinerary already.
You Are There, written by Johnny Mandel and David Frishberg, highlights Karla's clear diction and vocal. She takes risks in following occasional sidetracks and detours off the main melody line but never falls into a trap of getting lost. There is none of the over the top showmanship of lesser performers. With Karla the music and the shape of the songs remains paramount.
Baltimore Oriole is a brilliant personification song and like The Nearness Of You was penned by Hoagy Carmichael. This song tempts such extravagant touches but because singer and players take hold of the reins with lightness, applying just enough strength to slow down any galloping horses, the song is allowed to tell its story.
It is, though, Nature Boy that somehow best displays the amazing sophistication shown by this team (and team feels like a very important word when discussing this album, and this track in particular), which is in fact taken from a live recording. The song was written by George Alexander Aberle, known as eden ahbez, was an American songwriter and recording artist of the 1940s to1960s, whose lifestyle in California was influential in the hippie movement. He was known to friends simply as Ahbe and this song was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1948.
There is a live excitement, too, about Blue Skies and the instrumentalists drive it along at a thrilling pace, but Karla's vocals demonstrate that whilst she has, as we heard on those three opening numbers, a sultry studio voice, she can always create perfect stage dynamics too.
Marvin Fisher's wonderful When Sunny Gets Blue sees the song's subject seeming to attract Karla's sympathies, and Karla Harris also compels us to look at Sunny and see her frailties and resistance. It is this song, perhaps, that most had me in mind of that Sinatra comparison I referred to earlier. Long before I realised that all music aficionados noticed it and mentioned it, my dad always used to tell me that Sinatra's ´phraseology´ was what set him apart. More on that later, too.
I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water is a typical jazz bluesman-done-woman-wrong song, cowritten by Les McCann, with Lou Rawls who subsequently recorded it. Louis Allen “Lou” Rawls (December 1, 1933 – January6, 2006) was an American recording artist, voice actor, songwriter, and record producer. He was known for his smooth vocal style: Frank Sinatra once said that Rawls had “the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game”. Rawls released more than 60 albums, sold more than 40 million records, appeared as an actor in motion pictures and on television, and voiced-over many cartoons. He was also known for his frequently used expression, “Yeah, buddy!” Rawls was also a three-time Grammy-winner, all for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Karla's version of this Lieber Stoller song, in pretty much telling her man that he ain't nothing but a hound dog, captures Big Mama Thornton's determination that she won't be taking his wrongdoing no more!
All songs are intended for light years of travel and the best and fittest of them will fly across deserts and oceans, across any borders and somehow always manage to sound like they are right where they belong. Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters has crossed (and back again) from gospel, to blues, to country, to folk and even to pop, but here is indisputably an inhabitant of jazz, albeit in a linear narrative. It is all low piano notes, high tinkling at the other end, and there are rim trips on percussion.
Simon and Garfunkel whispered that promise of being a bridge, prayerfully, as if in church. Karla stands on the town-hall steps and calls her promise out to the world, and you just know she will keep her word.
In mentioning the linear narrative of Bridge Over Troubled Water I have reminded myself how important is the art of storytelling in the music that I listen to. There are writers of American music, think John Prine or Tom Waits, who can read you a novel or show a whole cinema film in three and half minutes of music and I have been fascinated to hear so much storytelling on Moon To Gold. Neither the vocal nor the instruments lead the other away from that narrative.
I have heard the story of When Sunny Gets Blue a million times (come on, allow me some poetic license here) but I have never seen Sunny so clearly, never empathised with her, as Karla gently forced me to do here. And I remembered, or perhaps even realised for the first time, that Karla has what my dad called Sinatra's phraseology. When she throws out a line into the open sky, she captures it as it comes back to earth and carries it with her along the storyline of the song.
Sinatra's version of Fly Me To The Moon was really a collection of simplistic throwaway lines and easy rhymes, but he phrased it into a communication, into a story. And although we wanted to trace its mafia menace and self-hubris, his command of its language and his separation and reconnecting of its phrases turned Paul Anka's My Way into a song anyone of us would like hear sung about us at our funeral.
I think Karla shares Sinatra's ability to address all nuances of a lyric. The studio recording version of My Way was contemplative, maybe even rueful, but was also full of satisfaction in a life lived independently. In live performances, of course, Sinatra could share with his audiences every nuance. In his voice we could hear the shrugged shoulders at a 'few regrets' and maybe even an occasional wondering if he might have done things differently.
That is a gift possessed only by the greats of the music industry.
Although their voices are different, Karla's caught my attention as immediately and eternally as did Kate Wolf's when I first heard her. The folk singer had passed away at a dreadfully young age by then, but her version of Across The Great Divide moved the shades from my eyes as deftly as did Karla with Blue Moon.
It was American songwriter Hugh Moffatt who once said to me in an interview that songwriters must intend their songs for lightyears of travel. It is a truism that great songs keep coming back, refreshed, in times and places we might never expect. The songs on this album were written with that same remit of being for lightyears of travel, and some are already half a century or more old and, Tardis-like, have visited the badlands of the blues and have seen Dallas From A DC Nine At Night.
These songs have never sounded better or more insightful or more relevant than they do here on Moon To Gold. And they have never been more loved.
And so, Karla and the musicians simply delivered these songs as if brand new, and in doing so made them all sound contemporary again. I think that is another of her gifts.
It never crosses our minds that these might have been just titles scribbled on a short list of tracks for this album. Each one sounds, instead, as it were specially selected, because it was most loved and a source of pride. These songs were surely selected because Karla and the musicians knew those songs wanted to be shared and brought back to our attention.
As the judges say on Strictly Come Dancing, we don't want to see the technique of dance. We don't want to know how it works, but we do want to know that the dancer knows how it works.
Any song is safe in the hands of Karla Harris. She knows how a song works.