Jesse Harris – Cosmo

Jesse Harris - Cosmo

Jesse Harris may not be a household name, but this singer/songwriter multi-instrumentalist left a noteworthy stamp on 21st century popular music when his formidable songcraft skills on “Don’t Know Why” helped to land jazz chanteuse Norah Jones three Grammy Awards back in 2003.  An enterprising musician who, since his debut album in 1995, has collaborated with everyone from Jones to Bright Eyes to Ethan Hawke, Harris has carved out a niche for himself as a purveyor of the sweet and earnest, which makes the union of his jazz/folk/rock influences a perfectly natural one.

Never one to rest on his laurels, this past year found the New York City native dropping two LP’s, the second of which is an all-instrumental affair that amalgamates Harris’ penchant for acoustic guitar melodies, soft jazz textures, and introspective movie scores. Working with longtime drummer Kenny Wollesen and bringing in a wealth of guest artists that include Eivind Opsvik and Doug Wieselman, Harris spends most of Cosmo in the sort of terrain that give romantic comedies their feel-good appeal.  The musicianship and technical facility are never less than impressive, but a majority of the songs never take flight, instead coasting on loose improvisations and repetitive melodic ideas.

An album that splits the difference between original compositions and reworked versions of songs from this summer’s Through the Night, Cosmo also lends itself to nighttime mysteries and starlit searches for meaning.  Opening cut “Little Star” makes this approach fairly obvious, with Harris spinning out contemplative acoustic guitar melodies over a midtempo groove and shimmering organ harmonies.  It’s the sound of somebody willing themself onward after a rough night.  The title track operates on similar terms, though this time the piano steps to the fore as the object of Harris’ melodicism.  Wollesen’s kit work on the tune is steeped in jazz, the cymbal play figuring more prominently than the drums.  Muted trumpet licks flitter by, lending the song a sense of quiet resolution.  It’s not something we haven’t heard many times before, but Harris excels at bringing a sense of barely detectable pain to a song that would otherwise go down with sugary sweetness.

The Norah Jones connection becomes more discernible on a track like “Somewhere Down the Road,” which is jazz of the smoothest variety.  Comprised solely of upright bass, drums, and piano, the song’s dreamy texture and leisurely tempo sound tailor made for any jazz vocalist who needs that wistful ballad on their next album.  “Strange Bird” is more directly indebted to blues than contemporary jazz, its grooves made of equal parts guitar, marimba, and Hammond B3 organ that give the song a smoky backwoods disposition.

For all the perfectly wonderful things Harris can do in this idiom, Cosmo’s best moment come when he strays from jazz/folk hybrid.  “Pixote” is set in a frenzied 12/8 groove that pits the organ and trumpet against one another in a Calexico-esque Tex-Mex jam.  “I Think You’re Hiding Something” seems to go to the Santana playbook, with two main chords that make it easy for jamming and Latin percussion that lends the track an added air of authenticity.  “No Way Out” is an odd-meter composition that unifies Dylan-inspired organ work with clever application of chromaticism, while “Over the Bridge (and into Queens)” finds Harris finally indulging his rock n’ roll vices with distorted electric guitar and a thumping bass line.

To his credit, everything Jesse Harris attempts on Cosmo is done with a veteran’s finesse and a professional’s work ethic; there’s not one track here that he doesn’t sell as a laudable attraction.  Sadly though, there’s very little here that commands a sense of urgency or importance.  Music doesn’t have to be difficult all the time, but in choosing not to push the envelope on Cosmo, Harris is unlikely to distinguish himself from the myriad other musicians who cite Burt Bacharach as an influence.