This two-fer pairs two pivotal and seemingly conflicting recordings in the career of Gene Harris as he entered the 1970s, a period that was to see his trademark rootsy sound embrace the emergent jazz-funk. The first of these albums, Gene Harris/The 3 Sounds, issued in 1971, gives us the bedrock exploration of the sound that gave us his later '70s classics Astral Signal, Nexus, In a Special Way, and Tone Tantrum. It was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by George Butler, with Monk Higgins arranging, co-composing all but one tune (a cover of “Eleanor Rigby”), and playing organ. Other players included guitarists Freddy Robinson and Albert Vescovo, bassist Luther Hughes, drummer Carl Burnett, Paul Humphrey on percussion, and Bobbye Porter on congas. For fans of the original Three Sounds, the preponderance of vocals may be a shock. They are often slightly off-key, and sung in a loose group style. But they do add to the overall driving, funky sound that embraces rock, soul, and pop, as well as jazz. (Check “I’m Leavin’,” “You Got to Play the Game,” and “Hey Girl.”) Harris’ signature grooving piano is present throughout, but its contrast with Higgins' busier, often raucous arrangements is notable. Despite the dense instrumentation, the instrumentals are smokin' ("Your Love Is Just Too Much,” “What’s the Answer”).
Gene Harris of the 3 Sounds, released in 1972, looks back (perhaps in reaction to its predecessor) at the jazz terrain he'd explored in the '60s, but also moves forward with some nice Latin and funky soul touches. Cut in New York, it was produced and arranged by Wade Marcus. The players include guitarists Cornell Dupree and Sam Brown, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Freddy Waits, and Johnny Rodriguez on congas. On the surface, the tunes do seem to be a walk backward toward his brand of mainstream jazz. But Harris was cagey; despite the mostly organic instrumentation, the groove is right where it should be for the time. There’s a deep soul-blues swing on John Lewis' “Django,” a percussive soul-jazz undercurrent on Benny Golson's “Killer Joe,” as well as a popping Latin tinge in Ellington's “C Jam Blues.” The reading of Luis Bonfá's “A Day in the Life of a Fool (Manha de Carnaval)" features a luxuriant interplay between piano, guitars, and shimmering cymbals that is both lush and deeply soulful. Funk rears its head in a burning read of Eddie Harris' “Listen Here.” Pop has its place in a fine cover of Bill Withers' “Lean On Me.” Both include chunky wah-wah guitars, strong backbeats, and conga breaks, while Harris walks the line between soul, blues, and gospel in his soloing. Individually, these albums may be mere curiosities; together they offer a compelling portrait of an artist in transition.