June 7, 2021. If you have any questions about where vocalist Allan Harris grew up or for whom he sings, you haven’t heard Kate’s Soulfood yet. One listen to the silky baritone’s 14th album as a leader will leave no doubt; Harris represents that same historic slice of Upper Manhattan that he honored all pandemic long with his popular weekly livestream Harlem after Dark.
Kate’s Soulfood doubles down on this premise, and, even better, allows you to immerse yourself in Harlem encomia and anecdote at any time of day. While balancing roles of tour guide, historian, and bandleader with characteristic cool, Harris is most memorable as the one with the voice that, by turns, brings to mind Nat King Cole and Gregory Porter.
Harris and co. lead off with “I Grew Up (Kate’s Place),” a tune that doubles as both Harris memoir and popular history, touching—both musically and lyrically— on themes of the Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance, and the central role the Apollo Theater played in bringing Black American music to the masses.
It’s the perfect anthem to celebrate this year’s Black Music Month and is narrative musical portraiture at its finest. It’s a snapshot that communicates essence and atmosphere. You can literally hear the neighborhood girls playing double Dutch and the boys racing each other up and down the block. If you close your eyes, you can see the ladies’ and gentlemen’s fashions of the era; you can even smell the coffee and bacon grease and whiff a hint of the cigarette smoke from Kate’s Home Cooking—the song’s namesake and luncheonette owned by Harris’ aunt at Frederick Douglass Blvd. and 126th St. (right behind the Apollo)—if you want it bad enough.
Exclamatory phrases from the Etienne Charles-arranged horns—Curtis Taylor on trumpet, Alex Budman on alto sax, and Keith Fiddmont on tenor sax—punctuate Harris’ reverie with verve and punch and remind of those simpler, long ago days when exclamation points still had meaning. Meanwhile, twangy harpsichord-like synth from Arcoiris Sandoval, combined with Ondre Pivec’s organ, Grégoire Maret’s harmonica, and an audible garnish of background hand clapping, countrify the sonic palette and remind the listener where the soul anchoring so much of this music takes root.
The whole album is slickly produced by Grammy winner Kamau Kenyatta, who’s known for his work with Gregory Porter, and the lead tune actually brings to mind Porter’s “On My Way to Harlem.” Both are anthemic, nostalgic portraits of Harlem presented with an authenticity of feeling that’s beyond question. The difference is that Porter’s is more of a daydream, a love letter to heroes from another time that he idolized from another place (California in Porter’s case).
Harris’ take is more autobiographical. He really saw Nina, Sarah, Ella, Duke, and Basie come through the neighborhood; he saw Harlem become an incubator for the civil rights movement; he saw entertainers put their careers in jeopardy by taking activist stances. He saw it all just by sitting at the counter at his aunt’s diner and immersing himself like a donut dunked in coffee.
Not surprisingly, Harris’ sidemen are strong throughout; he’s spent a lifetime spotting talent. Nimrod Speaks (electric bass) and Curtis Taylor (muted trumpet) carry the mood on “One More Notch,” an emotionally arresting piece of funk noir that sees Harris playing the role of a former gang member pleading (in song, of course) with a young mentee to get off the streets. A few cuts later, Speaks and Taylor shine to a similar extent on “Open Up,” a velvety piece of neo-soul that’s most definitely a call for greater love and understanding and quite possibly a call for much wider jacket lapels and a return in earnest to mutton-chop sideburns.
Harris is at his seductive best on “The Color of a Woman is Blu,” a waltzy, bluesy piece of vocal romance. Harris pulls out all the stops here for the object of his desire, employing lovely three-part harmonies by background vocalists Daneen, Jordan, and Whitley Wilburn and the coup de grace, a guitar solo from Tonga Ross-M’au. Use only on the true object of your affections; this stuff is potent.
On the other side of the bluesy spectrum is “Wash Away My Sins,” which combines horns, background vocals from the Wilburn ladies, and piano and organ working in tandem to produce a brand of gospel-tinged Americana that may bring to mind artists like Van Morrison and The Band.
Just as folky but decidedly more soulful is “99 Miles,” where Harris not only sings but also plays electric guitar on a tune that strikes me as part James Taylor, part Luther Vandross, and all Allan Harris.
Harris closes Kate’s Soulfood with “Run Through America,” a tune most timely and appropriate for this particular Black Music Month.
With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery spawning protests and a nationwide reckoning over race and a reframing of what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about ‘social justice,’ many musicians have found themselves inspired to add to the conversation. This is Harris’ entry. It’s a protest and a call to action and a darn powerful piece of music. Harris sings and plays guitar with ardor and urgency and his sidemen meet the moment to amplify his message, as Harris calls for “A revolution for restitution.”
“Let’s take to the streets,” he sings. “And shout out their names.”