Corey Harris Explores Blue and Black, and All The Shades In Between
More than just a blues musician, Corey Harris is a seeker of the countless historical and cultural truths locked within the music. For more than a decade, the guitarist-vocalist-songwriter has dug for the deepest and truest essence of the blues, reggae, gospel and other roots music by examining and celebrating their origins in various and diverse cultural centers – Africa, the Caribbean, Appalachia, Europe and beyond.
Zion Crossroads, Harris’ 2007 recording on Telarc – a division of Concord Music Group – was a reggae-flavored set that reflected his travels to Ethiopia during the prior year. Blues Revue editor Kenneth Bays called the album “an astounding record – musically rich, instrumentally diverse, and bursting at the seams with the spirit of African tradition.” Global Rhythm called it “one of the most vibrant reggae albums to be released this year.”
But the honors and the accolades have come from sources beyond just the music press. In 2007, he was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship – commonly referred to as a “genius award” – from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The annual grant, which recognizes individuals from a wide range of disciplines who show creativity, originality and commitment to continued innovative work, described Harris as an artist who “forges an adventurous path marked by deliberate eclecticism.” That same year, he was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Bates College, his alma mater in Lewiston, Maine.
The intersection of art, history and culture remains at the center of Harris’ work with the Telarc release of blu.black. blu.black is a collection of fourteen original songs – primarily blues and reggae, but with generous doses of other genres – that examine the African-American story of earlier centuries and connect it to the present day and future generations.
“There’s a blues song at the end of the sequence that’s simply called ‘Blues,’ and a song at the beginning called ‘Black,’” Harris says of the range of material on the recording. “The record is both of those things and everything in between. All the styles in all those songs represent everything between blue and black.”
Harris approached blu.black with the idea of making a record as live and organic – and at the same time as richly layered and relevant – as possible. Throughout the sessions, the emphasis was always more on the thematic and less on the technical aspects of the project. “I always deal with Africa and the blues and roots on my records,” he says. “Those have been my primary themes throughout most of my career. On this record, I wanted to express my love for great black music, and demonstrate that love in original song from. It’s the same goal I’ve been pursuing for some time – to make original music and try to educate people in the process.”
But the commitment to crafting a richly layered recording doesn’t necessarily require excessive production. “I didn’t want a busy record,” says Harris, who enlisted the services of producer and keyboardist Chris “Peanut” Whitley. “I think this record proves that you can have minimal instrumentation and still express a lot of different ideas. I wanted to have each song be basically a combination of keyboards, bass, drum and guitar – or in some cases, guitar only. I didn’t want a bunch of different guest artists and a full horn section. Even though the music has variety, the sound is consistent throughout. This was recorded all at the same time, in the same studio, with the same people on each track. You can make a record with heart and soul without adding a lot of bells and whistles.”
Each song on blu.black is its own story, says Harris, and all of the stories heard as a whole provide a map whereby we can reconnect to our individual and collective histories. “The story that I want to tell is that we who have had the experience of coming from parents who came from the south, whose parent were poor and the children of slaves – we can take this music and make something new with it,” he says. “The story isn’t finished. There are still places where it can move forward. There are still things that can be accomplished. There’s so much that can be done if we stay connected to the music and stay connected to our culture. That goes for all of us, for people of every culture. If we know where we’re coming from individually, then we’ll be able to present those gifts to the worked so that others can appreciate them.”