With the secret sauce of the Kamau Kenyatta sound making all the difference the world may be as bleak as it gets but once in a blue moon something uplifting comes along that you never thought could. Kate's Soulfood by singer-guitarist Allan Harris is that seriously good noise, Allan born to sing with no plan B in his homage to Harlem.
Before you do anything else scrolling down play a track from Jimmy Smith's Home Cookin', say a little 'Gracie', released by Blue Note in 1961. ''Kate'' in Allan's album title an aunt of his who ran a luncheonette in Harlem that a lot of the cats back in the day liked to go down to for a bite to eat, the jukebox, the camaraderie.
Allan brings a sense of place, a sense of jazz history and a reality about the America of today to the record. He is not naive. But his is a positivity that taps an essential spirit and that is one of the reasons the record is special.
He was preparing for his regular weekly stream with his band when he came to the phone. He does one every Tuesday and has been doing so since the Pandemic struck.
Speaking from Sugar Hill he says the Pandemic has been like ''a rollercoaster ride'' for himself and his musician acquaintances, ''everyone getting by emotionally supporting each other.''
He notes as jazz musicians and artists all are used to surviving when not touring. But this new situation is different.
''Thank god for Zoom. Man it's all been tantamount to Hell.''
But in a chink of light he sees the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris however as a ''new dawn'' and you get a lot of glass half-full optimism from this man who is the custodian of an incredible voice.
That sound radiates up from a Harlem long gone all retro on the one hand with its lovely organic sound, no synths or finicky post-production to over-fancy it but still swimming in the folk memory to bubble into a resurgent spirit that ebbs and flows through jazz fashions. Allan's original songs actually say something and are the foundation of it all. It goes back to the word in the head, on the page.
On closer 'Run Through America' he does not shy away from one of the evils of US society, police brutality pitted against the African-American community. That's not new. He tells me when talk turns to Harlem that when he was growing up how drugs were allowed to flood into the ghetto and there were all sorts of problems the community had to face. ''The culture is the same. But Harlem is a lovechild of a federal government vendetta.''
With the Pandemic the beatnik feel of the place in the enclaves among artists is nonetheless struggling. To embrace each other literally and metaphorically ''six feet of separation is difficult.''
The clubs have been shut since December taking a while to wind down once Governor Cuomo made the announcement.
As for Kate and Kenyatta, who obviously Allan clicked with, the singer says ''he's a good friend''. Their rapport began when Allan's wife and manager Pat made an introduction at the NAMM show a few years back.
Without it being an elephant in the room at all there is a Gregory Porter connection in Allan's choice of producers because in the past the singer also worked with Brian Bacchus who like Kamau was significant behind Gregory's soaraway success.
I certainly hear shades of Water and Be Good, Gregory's best albums by far, on Kate's Soulfood although Allan's voice is actually coming at jazz from a different angle and through a different filter.
You can't really say Allan sounds like anyone although of course just as Gregory did he has interpreted Nat King Cole. File if you like, in Billie Holiday parlance, under fine and mellow. Like Porter Allan has a beguiling effortlessness built on a certain inner truth that is as natural as breathing. Referring to Brian Bacchus' producing style Allan says he was ''more direct'' while Kamau is more ''gentle.''
Of Allan's earlier records I'd choose the Strayhorn album and you can tell the heights he can scale as an interpreter when a couple of decades back on it in a nuanced way he sang 'Pretty Girl (The Star Crossed Lovers)' on Love Came: The Songs of Strayhorn beautifully accompanied by pianist Eric Reed in a version that has an intact dewdrop quality all of its own.
When he picks up the guitar Allan projects a little of a rural folk-rock-blues thing going on at one level tucked in underneath the more noticeable bebop and crooning side that comes out on top or that diverted imaginatively in recent years into the vocalese fabulous mischief of the Eddie Jefferson approach.
Because Kamau is based in San Diego Allan flew out to get to know him and went back and forth as they prepared for the new album in the making. Kamau likes to ''delve into a song and sway into the art of the swing. Before you know it you've given him the songs and the next thing they're all arranged.'' Different studios were used on the recording. Allan mentions Trading 8s in New Jersey most referring to its ''clean'' sound. He says that his ritual in preparing for the studio is to establish the camaraderie, gigging preferably beforehand prior to the session.
Guitar let's not forget is important in his approach and we talk a little later about how Tony Bennett mentored him back around 1997-8 and suggested a way to accommodate both his singing and guitar playing, letting the guitar-playing ''intersect'' and above all give the vocal much more space. Bennett emphasised how important storytelling was in relaying the song. '''No acrobatics!''' Allan jokes about Spinal Tap and turning the volume up to 11 ''as every guitar player wants to do in the studio''. He says he's always trying some magical pedal or other and in his place at home has a whole back room full of gizmos.
As for Kate's Soulfood he and Kamau were looking for a 1970s sound forgoing digital stuff as much as possible. Looking for ''grit'' he used a Les Paul guitar and Cry Baby wah-wah, Big Muff distortion and Tube Screamer pedals.
Best songs are clearly the talked-in back from the brink 'Wash Away My Sins' that unveils a horn arrangement to die for and some engaged female backing vocals folded in to enhance and embellish the journeying on. The backing singers were mother and daughters. Allan says the talking approach is like ''sitting in the porch, that's being the orator, like a call to prayer'' and a way in to the song rather than bolting in.
Missing-you strivers song '99 Miles' he had ''kept in the drawer'' from the hard times when he was living in Atlanta, Georgia. He says he couldn't sing that song earlier in his career. ''I wrote it in the 1980s around 1984-85.' They were tough times back then but he says sometimes adversity brings out the best in his writing. QED. The song has instant classic written all over it.
Looking ahead however he is not despondent. When Trump goes he says ''I want it to be a tsunami of hope washing away apathy and hopelessness''. When Barack Obama became President he felt ''relief mingled with surprise that a black man had become President'' but these are different times with the virus rampant and the disturbing madness in DC last week. He sums it up succinctly: ''We need a medicine for our souls.'' Interview: Stephen Graham
Harlem After Dark Unplugged begins at half past midnight Dublin/London time. Kate's Soulfood on Love has a 12 February release date.