Vocalist/Guitarist Allan Harris Delivers Soul-Filled Harlem Tribute Via ‘Kate’s Soulfood’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Renowned vocalist and guitarist Allan Harris’ Kate’s Soulfood is a series of spirited, soul-drenched ten tracks that pay emotive homage to Harris’ home of Harlem, NYC. Showcasing his brisk baritone and deft songwriting ability, Harris’ fourteenth release as a leader paints a vivid portrait of his vibrant neighborhood that draws heavily from a deep well of childhood memories, as he states in the liners, “As a child, the rhythmic rocking of the subway was music to my ears. Every Sunday I took a magical ride along those tracks from Brooklyn to Harlem, which became my island of refuge,” he says. Like his ancestors who emigrated there during the Harlem Renaissance, Harris saw Harlem as a place of opportunity, belonging, and most importantly, love. “The people that enveloped me with their love and teaching placed an armor of music, literature and history around my underdeveloped mind.” 

Unlike most soul records, this one does not bear the stamp of Memphis, Houston, or Oakland but has a distinctly NYC air, much of which is due not only to Harris’ own experience but to the producing and arranging efforts of GRAMMY winner Kamau Kenyatta, known particularly for his work with Gregory Porter. Harris’ supporting band includes his working rhythm section made up of Arcoiris Sandoval on piano, Nimrod Speaks on bass and Shirazette Tinnin on drums. Also featured is Grégoire Maret on harmonica, David Castañeda on percussion, Curtis Taylor on trumpet, Alex Budman on alto saxophone, Keith Fiddmont on tenor saxophone and Ondre J Pivec on organ. Harris plays guitar throughout the album, excepting “Color Of A Woman is Blu”, which features Tonga Ross-M’au instead. 

The title takes its name from Harris’ Aunt Kate, and her popular luncheonette Kate’s Home Cooking. Located on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 126th street, right behind the Apollo Theater, the diner was often frequented by musicians (and notably appears on the cover of Jimmy Smith’s Home Cookin’)Harris would spend his Sunday afternoons at his aunt’s restaurant, soaking in the sounds and sights, before catching a show at the Apollo. “I experienced many pivotal moments at my aunts’ restaurant. I witnessed parts of the civil rights movement, rubbed shoulders with exceptional people, and it was there that I really found my voice.” In composing the music featured on Kate’s Soulfood, Harris drew from these impactful experiences, and in doing so, has produced a wide-ranging sonic diary of sorts of his beloved neighborhood, first heard in the opening track, “I Grew Up,” which begins with a backdrop of children playing and singing, later taking shape with striking horn arrangements by Etienne Charles. 

As he describes in the liners, “One More Notch (Put Down Your Gun),”, has him in the role of a former gang-member who pleads with his junior to get off the street.  He sends out “Wash Away My Sins,” imbued with a strong horn chart and choir-like backgrounds, as appreciation for the strong women who love and support Black men. While those tunes have a vintage feel, neo-soul emerges on “Open Up,’ punctuated with a harmonica solo from the utterly unique sounding Grégoire Maret.  “Shallow Man” brings in some funk to mix with the neo-soul as Maret, pianist Sandoval, and trumpeter Taylor prominently support.  Harris’ smooth, romantic R&B side and sweet guitar show through directly on “The Color of a Woman is Blu.”  Harris continues to paint warm portraits of friends and family in “99 Miles”, “Autumn Has Found You” (with Maret’s most poignant solo), and “New Day,” most driven with a nice mix of piano, organ, and guitar. 

The closer, “Run Through America,” with some different band members, was released as a single in August, written in response to the unjust police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, “Run Through America” and it accompany video form a modern-day call to action. It is a fitting end to an album about Harlem, a place where the civil rights movement boomed in the ‘60’s which Harris witnessed closely from his counter seat at Kate’s Home Cooking. 

Since this may be the first time we have covered Harris on these pages, some more perspective may be in order. Kate’s Soulfood is already being hailed as a tour-de-force for Harris, who has been called the “Jazz Vocal King of New York”. Described by some publications as possessing a voice with “the warmth of Tony Bennett, the bite and rhythmic sense of Sinatra, and the sly elegance of Nat ‘King’ Cole,” Harris has garnered wide acclaim from critics and legions of fans from all over the world. Porter can be inserted there as well. Recently, Harris made national headlines with his riveting work Cross That River, which tells the unsung story of America’s black cowboys and sheds light on their oft-overlooked contribution in taming the American West. Cross That River was featured in the New York Times, on NPR’s Weekend Edition, and on CBS and NBC

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris has remained in the public eye due to his weekly live stream concert series “Harlem After Dark”. These virtual performances, which stream on Youtube and Facebook Live and garnered attention from Forbes, regularly attract thousands of fans and have become a staple in many music lovers’ homes every Tuesday evening. Harris has often featured tunes from Kate’s Soulfood during these performances, and the music has been met with great enthusiasm as it will likely be for all who hear it in its entirety.


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