Feel, the seventh album from Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Jesse Harris, makes two important points. First, it confirms that Harris possesses a distinctive voice, both as a performer and composer. Think of the album as intimate, gently romantic, wistful, and/or humorous, and above all, equipped to stimulate those who appreciate craftsmanship and touch all who take time to listen.
The second point stems from the first: Jesse Harris has a history and a talent that goes beyond the impact he made as author of "Don’t Know Why," the song that helped launch Norah Jones’ phenomenal career.
That song, exceptional as it is, reflects Harris’ standard level of accomplishment as a composer. It’s no accident that those who have covered his work – Madeleine Peyroux, Pat Metheny, Lizz Wright, and Jones – are masters of interpretation, artists who work best when working with the best material.
Nor is it a coincidence that Harris’s evocative talents have led him into film work, most recently as composer and producer of the soundtrack to Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State (out on Think Films in August 2007), where Harris’ songs are interpreted by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Brad Mehldau, Cat Power, Feist and other major artists.
What is unusual, amidst all of this, is how Feel exceeds the standards that Harris has set for himself – yet, at the same time, it is utterly unlike anything he’s ever done.
The crisp yet laid-back groove and catchy vocal hook of the title track, the raindrop rhythm of guitar and hand drums on “I Don’t Mind,” the disarming wisdom of “Walk On,” the ability to conjure deep atmosphere through the barest touches of banjo (“How Could It Take So Long” and “I Would”), rolling snare (“Where to Start”), or strings (“You and Me”) … in fact, each moment of Feel testifies to Harris’s gift for assembling the simplest elements into pictures and stories whose impact is far from simplistic.
None of this is news to those who know his work. Even they might be surprised, though, at how quickly Feel came together – and, as a result, how revealing of the artist it is. “We recorded the entire album in three days,” Harris says. “We didn’t rehearse. I just came home from travelling, got everybody together in the studio, played each song for the guys once, recorded it and then I left town again.”
Feel, then, leads us beyond the nature of his previous work, including his reflective 2006 release Mineral, and closer to an understanding of who this artist is – or was, at the time of these remarkable sessions.
“Of course, all of that is definitely unconscious,” Harris cautions. “When I write a song, I’m just writing a song. Whatever it says about me might become clear later. Listening to this album, though, I guess it has a more positive spirit than some of the things I’ve done.”
It is also, he adds, his most spontaneous project to date. “Partly that’s because I was so busy doing other things when I came into it,” he points out. “I was especially involved with The Hottest State, a huge project, so much so that it was hard to think about how I would do this record. Honestly, until just before I started recording, I was completely blank about Feel – about who I would ask to play on it, what engineers I would use, or where to do it.”
But the seeds of Feel had actually been growing in Harris’ imagination for a while, though they initially reached for a different light than the one he would eventually follow. Brazilian music was their inspiration; its rhythms and textures had intrigued him for years, and after recruiting Mauro Refosco, an outstanding percussionist in that school, for an album he was producing for Sasha Dobson, Harris felt that this would be his path.
“Mauro and I talked about recording this with Brazilian musicians in Rio,” he remembers. “But the more we got into it, the more I realized that I couldn’t do this without leaving New York and spending a couple of months down there.”
And so he scheduled the recording for closer to home, at Loho Studios on the Lower East Side. In retrospect, it was the right move: though it emerged from a concept based on his communion with Refosco, Feel would flower in a dozen directions, free from preconception or design, based on the first-take interactions of musicians with the repertoire.
Though the recording sessions were quick, each musician is a distinctive player who enjoys some history with Harris. Drummer Andrew Borger had worked extensively with him on the road and on Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home and Not Too Late. Bassist Tim Luntzel had tracked and gigged with Harris as a member of The Ferdinandos during their semi-legendary residency at the East Village’s Living Room. Jon Dryden has played organ with Harris on dates for, among others, Richard Julian, who guests as well on Feel.
Recording went smoothly and quickly. That Brazilian feel was still in the mix, in part because Borger and Refosco, sharing the same booth, easily blended into a single flow of rhythm. Singing and playing guitar with the band, Harris connected with the moment to the extent that his live vocals usually were used in the final mix. By the time they’d wrapped it up and Jenny Scheinman, a longtime friend and collaborator as well as the hottest violinist in contemporary jazz, had come in to add a few parts, Harris sensed that he had something unexpected on his hands.
“It’s quite unlike anything I’ve done,” he says, “in that it combines the more rock-oriented Ferdinandos spirit with the creative and expansive elements of Mineral. And Mauro brings in a percussive element that’s completely new for me: we’d talked about going for a Brazilian thing, but often we went almost in an African direction, and when he played that vibraphone break on ‘It Washed Away’ it sounds almost like Bobby Hutcherson.”
Built on the foundation of Harris’s writing, Feel came to life more like a concert than a studio effort – or, more accurately, like an evening of friends playing for each other’s pleasure. In this sense, no matter where his activities take him, from playing session guitar to producing, from future film work to heading his Secret Sun Recordings imprint, Harris can look back on Feel as documenting a moment of creativity and camaraderie that is passed but also preserved in his broadening stream of achievement.