Corey Harris has that rare ability to sound like himself and always at home no matter what musical veins he’s tapping. His spiritual-musical journeys to Africa, explorations of Caribbean styles, and American blues and soul roots all contribute to the smooth pleasures of his new CD.
It’s possible to appreciate this collection on two levels. You can listen for Harris’s scholarship (he was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series “The Blues” in 2003), observe his absorption and re-transmission of musical styles from all over the African Diaspora, identify the different roots – or you can just let it move and groove you. It may take a listen or two for the second approach to work, but Harris’s unprepossessing vocals and straightforward yet slinky songwriting run through the whole effort like ice in coffee, making it easy to adjust quickly to his wide-ranging palette.
The CD is heavy on reggae and ska jams, which are made extra sweet by Harris’s subtly artful arrangements and masterful variety of guitar sounds. But the soulful, down-and-dirty “A Nickel and a Nail” and the funny, Mali-inspired “Mami Wata” are more unusual and memorable. The snappy instrumental “Khaira” and langourous, vaguely Afropop-ish “Big String” are also stirring, in very different ways: even when Harris sings of lost love, terror or war, his melodies and music keep to a life-affirming mode. Only in the true love songs “The Sweetest Fruit” and “More Precious Than Gold” does his deft touch lose the faint, warm tension that makes most of this music so satisfying.
“The Bush Is Burning,” as you might guess from the title, raises the specter of terrorism and sharply condemns the Iraq war, but it’s the only overt political statement on the album. Elsewhere Harris hews to more spiritual or personal lines. He visits the blues tradition with “The Peach,” abetted by jazzman-turned-griot Olu Dara, who also adds some laid-back trumpet to two other tracks. The other contributing musicians are very good as well, most notably the percussionist Harry Dennis, Jr.
Recommended for fans of real soul music, “world music,” reggae, and most anyone who likes to groove.