First, a word about Lee Harris. Harris was a baritone saxophonist, and composer and arranger who worked mostly in the New York City and Atlantic City areas. In 2016, Harris teamed up with Dennis Noday to found and co-lead Superband, a big band focusing on performing Harris’ compositions and arrangements. Harris composed and arranged music that is well-known to the public, even if he himself was not.
Harris’ failing health did not allow him to complete the Superband project but Jeanette C. Piña, a media promoter who became the executive producer of this album and turned The Bright Side into an album showcasing Harris' legacy.
Sadly, Lee Harris passed away before the project was finished and he was never able to hear the final project. Michael Balogh, the lead trombonist with Superband, became the musical director and conductor of the band that continued Harris’ music. With so many of the original band members moving on, the band name was changed to Horizons Jazz Orchestra and turned this, their debut album, into the tribute to Lee Harris that had been envisioned all along.
Balogh enlisted three of his friends to join in the recording as guest artists. Carl Sanders is a trumpet virtuoso and is featured on five of the 10 tracks with his brilliant solos. Jonathan Joseph, the famed Grammy-winning drummer who has worked with Spiro Gyra, Al Jarreau, Yellowjackets, David Sanborn, and even Jeff Beck, also appears on the album with woodwind specialist Billy Ross, a member of the Woody Herman Orchestra since he was 17 years old. Ross appears on four of the 10 tracks.
Of the 10 tracks on the album, there are five originals by Harris and five others that feature his arrangements of classic jazz standards. The arrangements are as exciting and creative as his original compositions. In fact, Lee Harris has that distinct way of making a song his own. This album is all the evidence you need.
Red Apple Sweet kicks off the album, a Lee Harris original. It is written in several sections, obviously as a play on the word suite. The opening section plays off the recognizable five-note motif from the old Gospel song, Wade in the Water. Jonathan Joseph gets some brilliant passages on the drums with Gary Mayone on the B3 organ. Hold on for Michael Balogh’s trombone solo. This is how you start on album.
Pure Imagination from Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse comes next with its brilliant work from Carl Saunders’ flugelhorn and the host of sax players. You’ll recognize where you first heard the song but, once again, this is Harris’ version and he does wonders with it, moving it from ballad to waltz.
After You’ve Gone, Finally is a great spin-up of the old Turner Layton Jazz standard. Scott Klarman and Billy Ross take some sweet sax solos along with Carl Saunders’ trumpet.
The Runner is a Lee Harris original that features Carl Saunders on flugelhorn. The piece is almost a tone poem evoking imagery of coastal travels and open, inviting vistas. The Brite Side, another Harris original, also captures the imagination. This time Gary Mayone’s keys and Billy Ross’ bluesy excursion on tenor sax take center stage and make for some fascinating listening.
Fourth Dimension, yet another original, also displays Mayone’s keys from the start with Saunders, Randy Emerick’s baritone sax, and Luke Williams’ guitar getting featured. This is a hopping piece that feels so good to just sit back and enjoy the swing. Saunders just nails the trumpet solo.
Billy Ross and Mike Levine co-wrote The Sound, a tribute to Stan Getz and arranged brilliantly by Harris. Billy Ross, of course, is the featured soloist on tenor sax. A beautiful piece, arranged with equal beauty, and performed…you guessed it…beautifully.
Then the album is closed with three works of renown, arranged by Lee Harris. Gershwin’s Summertime is one of the most played (and over-played) songs from the American songbook. But when it is done with the style and wonder of an artistic arrangement and performed so well, there is not much like it. It shakes off the dust and lives anew. Harris and the Horizons Jazz Orchestra have done just that.
Maria, from Leonard Bernstein, features Dennis Noday on trumpet and Joe Milleti on tenor sax. It is the odd one out on this album as it is the Don Sebesky arrangement that Noday played with Superband. It is a gorgeous piece, of course, and the band performs it exquisitely.
The album closes with the Billy Strayhorn classic, A Train Bossa. It is, of course, Take the A Train arranged in bossa nova. This is a fun and energetic take on a fun and energetic original. Billy Ross (tenor sax) and Carl Saunders (trumpet) take it home with their featured parts.
The album The Brite Side is indeed a tribute to the composer-arranger who contributed so much, was proclaimed too little, and gave us a new way to listen and new things to hear. The artists and producers deserve all the gratitude we can give for keeping the legacy of Lee Harris fresh.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl