Always a joy when a buy based on the cover art turns out to be a real find. So it was for Bill Harris’ Great Guitar Sounds (Mercury Wing MGW 12220, 1960s, a mono LP). I didn’t know of Bill, but one play was all I needed. The man is a singular jazz guitarist. He plays a nylon string, Spanish style guitar, not an electric hollow bodied f-hole like most jazzers do. He was also the guitarist for the Clovers, the 50s doo-wop band. But don’t stop reading. His pop stylings are not here. This solo LP is amazing.
Without a band to back him, there’s nowhere to hide. No prob. Bill is riveting. Take Concerto For Jazz. I was immediately taken aback by the percussive way he attacks the strings. This is not Jim Hall’s soft, sleepy-eyed jazz. It’s not Barney Kessel’s bluesy, bent string thing. It’s sharp, demonstrative, grab you by the collar cause you gotta listen. Bill sometimes pounds and plucks the nylon like a flashy flamenco guitarist or classical guitarist gone rogue. I found his classical stylings, combined with jazz artistry quite refreshing. No solo artist boredom here, that’s fo’ sho’!
The whole LP is this way. It’s as if Harris decided to put all of his passion and verve into his fingers and out came this record. He is occasionally a little sloppy, as if he’s reaching for notes he can’t quite get to fast enough, or cleanly. But all is forgiven. It’s just too good, too snappy to dwell on any negatives. In fact, I rather like that he’s not playing it safe. You will too.
One thing Bill does is sometimes hum along with his notes. Some players, like pianist Keith Jarrett, can be very annoying but I don’t think it detracts here.
Lullaby of Birdland is taken slower, and it’s a nice change from the sometimes frenetic pace of the other tunes. Bill’s take is wonderful, the way he climbs the fretboard up, up and further up in one sequence, and then takes you back to the melody. Bill does take the volume up a bit later, but eventually comes back down for the head of the song. He slides his fingers for notes in ways that you rarely hear in most jazz guitar. He often uses it as a kind of flourish, a bright attention-getter. Perhaps it’s his nylon string acoustic that facilitates this. But it’s probably just his way of playing. I really like it.
My favorite song is the haunting Poinciana. There’s something about the chords he chooses to open the song that really gets me. There’s a bit of classical stylings in this one, if only for a moment. Bill continues to use his “slide to a chord” method here, to great effect. You’ll hear it throughout the LP and come to like it, I believe. The song, at just over two minutes, is way too short. The longest song on the LP is a mere 3:12. Damn it! Well, best leave ’em wanting for more, eh?
That’s exactly it for me. I want more Bill Harris. Got just one minute and 49 seconds? Listen to a four song medley, right from my LP!
COMPARED! Because Bill’s work never shows up at the vinyl stores I peruse, I bought the just released Fresh Sounds (FSRCD 792-2) The Blues-Soul of Bill Harris two CD set, which encompasses Bill’s work on the Mercury label, including Great Guitar Sounds. So you’ll hear AIFF vs AIFF. Both files were normalized to -0.5db to keep volume levels the same. Check out the comparison between two songs from my vinyl LP and the CD!
I found the CD to be quite a bit duller in sound. The high frequencies have been rounded off, but the CD is therefore much quieter. The pluck of the strings, the air surrounding those strings and the lively quality of the recording is missing on the CD. The CD is much easier to find, of course. I’m not positive the CD was actually taken from the original masters…it’s possible they were transferred from vinyl and then denoised, hence the loss of highs. Take a look at the two waveforms. They are awfully similar, not what I usually see when comparing the CD to the vinyl transfer. So if you can’t locate Bill’s LPs, you might go for the CD…but I do feel my LP is superior in sound and especially feeling. The CD seems dry, clinical, less lively.
ALSO! You can find a nicely done online discography for Bill Harris here.
AND! With Christmas nearly upon us, I’ll be taking a break until something like late January before posting again…Thanks for reading!