Corey Harris is unlike any blues artist that you'll ever hear. Although I'd be willing to bet that he drives so-called "blues purists" simply daffy with his hybrid style, the fact remains that the man makes engaging, intelligent music. Using Mississippi Delta blues as a starting point, Harris adds in layers of Southern gospel, reggae and other Caribbean sounds, and the rhythms of Africa to create a unique and highly individual music. The result is an invigorating blend of cultures and styles - a blues-based world music, if you will.
Harris's latest, blu.black, follows up on his critically-acclaimed 2007 collection, Zion Crossroads with a sound as unique as the artist himself. A natural born storyteller, Harris uses his invigorating musical smorgasbord as a soundtrack for his epic lyrical attempt to connect the stories of African-Americans of centuries ago with the Black experience today. It's an ambitious song cycle, one that could only be attempted by an artist of Harris's talent and experience.
Corey Harris' blu.black
The beautiful, finely-crafted "Black" is a soul-blues ballad with gentle rolling vocals, a silky instrumental arrangement, and lyrics that evoke a cross between Delta blues and Jamaican Rastafarian philosophy. The song's positive message is bolstered by a deceptively mesmerizing soundtrack and classic R&B styled vocal harmonies.
The defiant "My Song" is at once both affirmative and a powerful statement of purpose, Harris singing "you can't take away my song" above a circular guitar strum and a steady rhythm. As the piano chimes in and background singers join the fun, the song takes on a transcendent nature, speaking to the eternal nature of music itself, one of the few truly universal experiences shared by nearly every human on the planet, and of music's ability to free people, to rise above poverty and racism with one voice.
From its loping rhythms to Harris's natural vocal patois, "Conquering Lion" could easily pass for a native Jamaican reggae tune. With the slightest of bluesy undercurrents, and vocals that could easily pass for Peter Tosh, the song's mystical, mythical protagonist is a natural icon, the song itself another uplifting tale of hope. The staggering "Babylon Walls" takes the reggae sound a step further, using Rasta terminology and "riddims" to deliver a sermon on sin and salvation, and the eventual rise of the righteous above the corrupt.
Since Harris and his co-writer Chris "Peanut" Whitley penned the two aforementioned songs in the classic reggae style, it should come as no surprise when they cover Burning Spear's wonderful "Columbus." A song of discovery and redemption, oppression and freedom, it's a deceptively potent story told above a laid-back acoustic soundtrack. The album-ending "Blues" is a Delta blues-styled torch song with plenty of emotional piano-pounding, some scrappy guitarplay, and a passionate vocal performance that includes a humorous and timely shout-out to another song.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
It's taken me a few spins of the CD to put my thumb on it, but I couldn't figure out why so much of blu.black sounded familiar in style, if not lyrical content, to these tired and jaded old critical ears. Corey Harris is playing blu-reggae! It was the contributions of percussionist Darrell Rose that tipped me off...along with Aashid Himons and Mustafa Abdul-Aleen, Rose was a member of the popular and ground-breaking mid-1980s Nashville band Afrikan Dreamland that mixed Delta blues and Jamaican reggae to create an entirely new genre, "blu-reggae."
The African-American music of the Deep South - blues, soul, and gospel - was heard on tiny transistor radios by Jamaican musicians during the 1950s and '60s, who then used it as a foundation for the creation of reggae. With blu.black, Harris brings the entire affair full-circle with an inspired collection of songs that mixes musical styles with gleeful abandon.
As I stated before, blues purists will run from this album like a cat from water. However, if you'd like to challenge your musical preconceptions, let your imagination fly, and discover one of the most unique and entertaining albums that you'll ever hear, I'd highly recommend blu.black. With both words and music, Corey Harris isn't just speaking to the African-American experience, but to the entire human experience. (Telarc Records, released September 29, 2009)