Sub Rosa is an apt title for singer-songwriter
Jesse Harris’ new album. A Latin word meaning “secret” or
“private,” it perfectly describes Harris’ role as Pop music’s
best kept secret.
Jesse Harris began recording at the turn of the 21th
century. (He has released 10 albums since 1999). By 2003 he
won a Grammy Award for writing Norah Jones’ breakthrough
hit, “I Don’t Know Why.”
Harris actually contributed five songs to Norah Jones’
wildly succesful 2002 debut, Come Away With Me. He has performed
similar songwriting and production chores for Madeleine Peyroux and
Melody Gardot. But Harris’ star shines brightest when he is playing
and performing his own music.
Sub Rosa is Harris’ first release for acclaimed indie label
Dangerbird. It opens with the shuffling Gypsy Jazz of “I Know It Won’t
Be Long.” Sly and sanguine, Harris easily inhabits the skin of a smooth
operator. His cool, casual manner immediately seduces the listener.
Jesse Harris is a master of the languid, minor-key groove.
Both “All Your Days” and “Rocking Chair” display this prowess.
The former opens with a lone strumming acoustic guitar before locking
into a chugging backbeat and floating, ethereal strings. The introspective
lyrics point out that personal freedom comes at a cost.
The supple “Rocking Chair” is piloted by a bare bones trio of
guitar, drums and electric piano. The lyrics are chockablock with
romantic regret and lonely life lessons: “You taught me that
nothing is free…” Norah Jones provides pliant backing vocals.
The best songs on Sub Rosa are the ones that take
Harris out of his comfort zone. “Sad Blues” is sharp and angular.
It opens with roiling guitar chords and a stutter-step beat. Swirling
electric piano fills anchor the soulful mood. The melody ricochets
between relax-fit blues and swamp rock.
Tired of a lover’s blatant equivocation, Harris seems
genuinely pissed off on “I Won’t Wait.” Swooping strings propel
this martial waltz. The melody theatrically clacks and whirs like a Klezmer
tune, masking Harris’ subtle rebuke…”Take a look inside your heart/
You’ll see your heart and mind are worlds apart.”
“It’s Been Going Round” is the album’s most ambitious
track. A Spaghetti Western Samba, the song moves with swivel-hipped
grace. The wan lyrics of heartbreak can’t compete with the infectious
melody. Jazz great Bill Frisell provides a fluid guitar break that recalls
the sharp early 70s Jazz-Funk found on the C.T.I. label.
Other stand out tracks include the wheezy “Waltz Of The Rain,”
and “The Maiden,” the latter echoing the soulful urgency of Al Green’s
classic, “Belle.”
“Rube And Mandy At Coney Island” is slow and evocative.
A sweet and nuanced portrait of an octogenarian couple…
“All the world dissolves behind them, like a dream of summers gone/
They’re still out at Coney Island, in an everlasting song.”
Harris also displays his whimsical side with “Patchouli,”
a jaunty and gentle mockery of hippie ritual. “Tant Pis”
(French for “too bad” or “never mind.”) is stealthy Gallic
duet with Melody Gardot.
Norah Jones pops up again on the gentle closing track,
providing backing vocals on “Let It All Come Down.” Tentative and
exquisite the lyrics hew closely to the Beatles “Let It Be”
Jesse Harris will probably never crack Billboard’s
Top 10, but that’s okay. In this era of instant gratification,
today’s chart-topper is tomorrow’s one-hit wonder.
Harris is a consummate and prolific artist. Like Paul Simon
or James Taylor, Jesse Harris’ music will stand the test of