Of Certain Elements, the third album from acclaimed jazz vocalist Karla Harris, it can be said that this is a place where lush contemporary comes alongside deft acoustic mainstream jazz to create the potent signature sound of this collection. Intriguingly mystical and invitingly earthy, with an aural quality all its own, the record’s tunes of varying feels – Latin, contemporary, swing, blues-inspired – showcase the velvety, dynamic range of Harris’ considerable talent to compelling effect.
Certain Elements follows up on Harris’ second release, Karla Harris Sings the Dave and Iola Brubeck Songbook, released in 2015 on Summit Records and featuring jazz all-stars Tom Kennedy on bass, drummer Dave Weckl, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and pianist/arranger Ted Howe. Harris’ vocal versions of Brubeck classics proved to be an expertly executed and well-received homage showcasing the singer’s technical chops and interpretive ability. Of the record, jazz reviewer Thomas Cunniffe wrote, “She makes these seldom-heard lyrics come alive,” and Jazziz said, “The Brubecks would be pleased.”
Harris’ new recording demonstrates evolving artistry. She leans creatively into a fuller spectrum of her gifts on Certain Elements, teaming with acclaimed producer Trammell Starks to create tracks where her authenticity and emotive power come shining through. The record’s 12 tracks feature several originals penned by the vocalist, her first outing as a songwriter, and beautifully curated cover tunes, including the album’s first single, a contemporary jazz remake of the 1960s hit “Cherish.” Harris’ “Cherish” gets lush, romantic treatment, thoughtful rhythmic variation, and nuanced delivery of those longing lyrics. Released to contemporary jazz radio mid-September, it’s generating buzz quickly. The tune’s composer, Terry Kirkman, comments that it is a “beautiful surprise” for him, and that Harris’ “rich, warm, depth throughout her range is incredible … truly inspirational.”
“Cherish” was one of the last tracks produced for the collection, which unrolled organically over a period of years. “This project actually started in 2013 – I just didn’t know it at the time,” Harris says. It was then that she recorded in Portland, Oregon, her former home, a cover of the Peter Dello tune and Joe Cocker hit, “Do I Still Figure in Your Life,” at the suggestion of Latin percussionist and bandleader Bobby Torres, who toured with Cocker for years. Torres arranged the song for Harris’ voice, creating a stripped-down ballad version of the tune that packs an emotional punch. The track stayed tucked away following a move that took Harris to Atlanta.
Not too long after that move, she experienced a period of time she describes as “creatively intense, where the muses were kind.” Riding the wave, Harris wrote several songs, six of which are included on Certain Elements. From the poetic, transcendent title track to the whimsical wordplay of the swinging “When Michael;” from the grown-up sensuality of “Folds” to the story-based blues of “Interlude” and more, Harris’ songwriting shows a love for words and wrapping them into a lyric and a melody.
“From the moment they formed, I became committed to these songs, performed them on occasion at live shows to great response, and wanted to record them, simply to complete a creative process,” Harris says. However, after bringing her material to Starks, the vision grew along with the producer’s enthusiasm over what he was hearing from the singer/songwriter. He encouraged Harris to further build out the project, and set to arranging some of her originals.
Meanwhile, Harris pulled in covers of songs arranged for her over the years by close colleagues, including that 2013 track and another done by Torres, a sultry Latin version of the Legrand/Bergman tune, “The Way He Makes Me Feel.” Harris also includes a jazz-influenced take on the Bill Withers classic “Lean on Me,” arranged by pianist Mark Simon, a close friend of Harris’ who passed away before he could finish tracking the tune. His brother, Chicago pianist Fred Simon, completed it for the recording.
The record honors other friendships made across Harris’ musical journey and features many more bright lights, from Portland, Seattle and Atlanta, including pianists Randy Porter, George Colligan, Kevin Bales, Dan Gaynor, Tyrone Jackson; bassists Sam Sims, Damian Erskine, Jeff Johnson, Neal Starkey; saxophonists Sam Skelton, Mace Hibbard; trumpeter Darren English; drummers Todd Strait, Marlon Patton, Lil’ John Roberts, Reinhardt Melz; percussionists Rafael Pereira, Bobby Torres, Carmelo Torres; guitarists Dan Baraszu, Chris Blackwell; and Trammell Starks on keyboards and programming.
“A dancing tendril on the edge of flame.”… It’s a lyric from the album’s first track, a Latin-infused tune of Harris’ called “Set Sophia Free” that carries a powerful message of awakening with its world-music, spiritual vibe. Like that dancing tendril, Harris is set to light a fire within jazz fans’ hearts with Certain Elements.