Allan Harris – Black Bar Jukebox (2015)

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An album namechecking the varied offerings of mid-century jukes in African-American club barbershops and greasy spoons had best have versatility as one of its principal bonafides. And it’s just that element of surprise, that sense of blending R&B and country, blues and Latin, jazz and soul, which makes Allan Harris’ Black Bar Jukebox his most complete offering to date.

Working with Grammy winner Brian Bacchus (Gregory Porter, Norah Jones), Harris blends hip readings of familiar songs with a smattering of well-appointed originals to create not just a moment in time, but an entirely new world centered on this delightfully open-hearted vibe. In that way, Black Bar Jukebox (due January 20, 2015, via Love Productions/Must Have Jazz) avoids the trap of vacuum-packed nostalgia that often dooms such conceits, even as he opens your ears to every part of his still-developing artistry.

Sure, you get another take on the ageless “You Make Me Feel So Young.” But listen as Harris — who combines the heart-filled romanticism of Johnny Hartman with the warm directness of Tony Bennett — brings in the fizzy spices of Ahmad Jamal (“Miami”), the leaping wonder of Count Basie (“I Got the Blues”) and the bone-deep grooves of Les McCann (“Take Me to the Pilot”). The source material skitters across a similarly involving musical landscape, as those songs were composed respectively by Harris himself; James Moody and Lester Young; and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Allan Harris is even so bold as to offer a brilliantly syncopated guitar-focused reworking of “Daughters,” by John Mayer.

And therein lies the strength, and the wonder, of Black Bar Jukebox. This is storytelling of the highest order, conveyed through a prism of musical history that refuses to acknowledge genre boundaries — or stick too closely to expectations. That brilliant diversity is held together by the skill, the passion and joy, of Allan Harris’ voice.

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