Born in South Carolina but now based in the San Francisco Bay area, vocalist Paula Harris has impressed folks in the Blues Scene. Her band finished in the top 3 in the 2012 International Blues Challenge and recordings have furthered her stature with praises from Dan Ackroyd, the late Lou Rawls and Stax legend William Bell.
Her new recording takes her into more of jazz setting as she explores the nexus of blues and jazz backed by an acoustic piano trio. The backing musicians include pianist Nate Ginsburg, bassist Richard Girard, and drummer Derrick 'D'Mar' Martin, with guest appearances from trumpeter Bill Ortiz, a poetic rap from Big Llou Johnson, and Christoffer 'Kid' Andersen on bongos on one song and waterpipe on another. "Speakeasy" was recorded at Andersen's Greaseland Studios, and he mixed the recording.
10 of the 16 songs on my CD are originals with Harris' lyrics and music from her and Ginsburg, two are from Bay area friends, and the others are interpretations of standards. Scott Yanow has suggested in the liner notes that Paula Harris has created a jazz-blues fusion, bridging "the gap between blues and jazz, while not neglecting soul and R&B." I have other singers around Washington DC (where I live) do the same, although they are often viewed as jazz singers. This is not to diminish the talent or what Paula Harris has accomplished here. She is a terrific vocalist. She sings expressively with power, but subtle and nuanced and one can appreciate the what the late Lou Rawls meant when he said she was "A thin vanilla coating on a dark chocolate soul."
And she brings her vocal talents to some stunning originals like the cautionary "Nothing Good Happens After Midnight," and the evocative ballad "Haunted." The there is spice and exuberance of "Soul Sucking Man," well she sings about resisting the temptation and charms of this gentleman, and her sober, elegiac rendition of "Good Morning Heartache" a marvelous interpretation of a song associated with Billie Holiday. "A Mind of Her Own" is a superb straight blues while trumpeter Ortiz creates a haunting mood to the sensual "Something Wicked" with interplay with her interaction with Big Llou Johnson's poetic rap. Ortiz's muted trumpet adds to the late-night feel of the Thelonious Monk jazz standard "Round Midnight" to which she has provided original lyrics and delivers a superb, longing vocal. Her splendid rendition fo Al Kooper's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" is based on Donny Hathaway's interpretation. After the minor-toned blues about a cheating lover, "Who Put Those Scratches On Your Back," the CD closes with a playful take on Louis Jordan's "Is You Or Is You Ain't My Baby."
The contributions of her backing piano trio should not be overlooked. Pianist Ginsburg especially impressed with his deft accompaniments and lively, imaginative solos while the rhythm duo of Girard and Martin provide a light, yet firm foundation for Paula Harris' expressive, subtle singing. With this backing and the excellent material, "Speakeasy" is a superb recording.
I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is a video of her performing "Nothing Good Happens After Midnight."