Jazz vocalist Harris tossing aside great American songbook's script

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 5:55 p.m.

Allan Harris is trying to break the bars of the cell he says have imprisoned the American male jazz vocalist.

He examines the current jazz scene and sees only a few male singers in a world dominated by the likes of Diane Krall, Rene Marie and Cecile McLorin Salvant. But, after Kurt Elling, he says, name a few other men.

“The male vocalist is a prisoner of the great American songbook,” he says. “The writers of those great songs dealt with things that a 12-year-old girl understands. She can start singing those songs because she knows about being sad. It takes boys a long time to learn those things.”

He is hoping to give a young singer an audience Feb. 28 in a show at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on the North Side. “The Gentlemen Sing” is a display of three generations of American singers and the end of a talent contest put together by Marty Ashby, executive producer MCG Jazz.

Harris, 57, will be joined by Ernie Andrew, 88, to present a look at decades of American jazz singing. They then will be joined by Milton Suggs, 28, the winner of a guild-sponsored search to find a young “gentleman” to join the other two.

Ashby says when he was putting the program together, he wanted to find experienced singers who represent a certain stage in their careers — as well as singers who would be new faces for the guild.

“Ernie is a veteran, and Allen is in that sweet spot of having a good career going now,” he says.

In mid-December, Suggs was chosen in a sing-off that also included Tak Iwasaki and Benny Benack III. All three are running their careers out of New York City. Benack, of course, is the third generation of Pittsburgh-area jazz musicians bearing that name.

They performed at the guild on a free Sunday-afternoon show, judged by a panel of Harris, singer Etta Cox and Freddy Cole, who was there after performing the night before.

While Harris admits to admiring all three of the contestants for their good voices and musical skills, he says choosing Suggs ultimately was not a tough decision because “he didn't drop us off a cliff.”

Such was not the case with Iwasaki and Benack, he says. Iwasaki worked too hard in his version of “My Favorite Things,” a version that even made drummer Roger Humphries work hard to grasp.

“And if you do that to Roger — man, that's tough,” Harris says.

Benack, he says, spoiled his performance by playing his trumpet when he should have stuck with his singing.

“He's a young guy who can put down his horn and make you forget he plays it,” Harris says. “He should have. This was about his ability as a vocalist. He should have been real minimalist with his horn.”

Suggs simply presented his material with heart and soul, and didn't try to do too much, Harris says. He even knew the wisdom of “giving Roger enough room to guide him.”

At the upcoming concert, the three singers will perform with Harris' band, which includes Pittsburgh-native bassist Leon Boynkins. But all of the singers will be trying to show their own direction.

“We don't want to get in each other's way,” Harris says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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