On their new Verve Forecast album While the Music Lasts, Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos deliver the same nuanced, introspective songwriting and compellingly bittersweet musical sensibility that are already well known to listeners who discovered the foursome's widely acclaimed 2003 Verve release The Secret Sun or their three prior indie CDs-and to the millions who were introduced to Harris' talents via his work with longtime friend and collaborator Norah Jones. The New York-bred troubadour played guitar and wrote five songs for Jones' multi-platinum breakthrough album Come Away with Me-including the massive hit "Don't Know Why," for which Harris won a Grammy award for Song of the Year.
2003 saw Harris receiving his share of the spotlight, touring extensively with the Ferdinandos and receiving widespread acclaim for his distinctive songcraft. The Los Angeles Times described him as "a skilled guitarist and a writer with a gift for poetically sculpted sketches of romantic yearning," while the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Harris' "ability to give universal feelings a musical and emotional print... distinguishes the songs from zillions with similar themes." Interview, meanwhile, praised The Secret Sun as "charming, sad, soft-spoken, and utterly devoid of any of the larger-than-life pretense that mars so much pop music."
While the Music Lasts offers 14 new Harris compositions, which maintain the artist's established levels of emotional resonance, melodic craft and vocal intimacy. The vivid lyrics and exquisite melodies of such memorable tunes as "Wild Eyes," "Wish I Was A Bird," "I Never Changed My Mind," "I Have No Idea" and "Mirror Ball" are driven home by inventive, understated arrangements that highlight the organic interplay of Harris and his bandmates, guitarist Tony Scherr (who co-produced the album with Harris), bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Dan Rieser (who stepped in last year for longtime member Kenny Wollesen, who returns to play on three of the tracks). The musicians-whose collective resume includes work with the likes of Bill Frisell, Tom Waits, Bright Eyes, the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob-lend the songs a fluid, effortless quality that draws upon the players' jazz backgrounds
While the Music Lasts also integrates key contributions from several notable figures, including legendary studio vet Terry Manning, who engineered and mixed the album; cult-icon auteur Van Dyke Parks, who crafted distinctive string arrangements for four tracks, and played accordion on one; noted guitar innovator and longtime Ferdinandos friend Bill Frisell, who plays on two songs; Tin Hat Trio member Rob Burger, who contributes piano, organ and steel guitar; and Norah Jones, who sings on four songs and plays piano on one, appearing here on her third consecutive Harris album.
Where Harris and the Ferdinandos' prior releases were generally put together in seat-of-the-pants style under severe budgetary constraints, While the Music Lasts took advantage of a wider set of recording options. "This was the first time I was ever able to really plan out an album," Harris explains. "When we made our earlier albums, everything was done with favors and in home studios, and things were always getting done at the last minute. This time, Tony Scherr and I got together and made demos for every song, and we talked a lot about arrangements. So when we finally went into the studio, it was like we were executing a plan, and within that blueprint we were able to be creative and spontaneous."
Indeed, While the Music Lasts maintains its predecessors' emphasis on capturing the interaction of live band performances. "Nearly everything was recorded live," Harris reports. "That's the only way I'm able to make records; I kind of suck when I try to do it the other way. We'd been on the road all year playing all these new songs, so everybody had the material down pretty cold.
"All of our albums have been pretty sparse," Harris notes. "But on this one, we wanted a richer, more sophisticated sound, so we added things like strings and horns and piano and organ and marimba. I think the idea was to have them pretty subdued in the mix-to have all that stuff in there but still give it a little mystery. Terry Manning was an incredible guy to work with, and he had a lot to do with the sound and vibe of the record. The whole album was recorded and mixed analog. We tended to go for darker tones-French horn, viola, cello, clarinet. I think that that attitude extended to the songwriting. On The Secret Sun, I was striving to write super-simple tunes for the most part, but on this one I wanted stuff that was a little richer harmonically."
Jesse Harris has been making distinctive, personally charged music for most of his life. Growing up in an artistic Manhattan family, he began studying classical piano at the age of ten, before picking up guitar and harmonica in his teens. Although he'd initially wanted to write prose rather than music, his discovery of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and The Band opened his eyes to music's capacity to communicate. He began writing his own songs and playing them in front of club audiences at 17, and eventually won his first record deal as half of the duo Once Blue. Once Blue released a critically acclaimed debut on EMI in 1995, but the group's second album went unreleased due to record-company politics.
Following Once Blue's breakup, Harris formed the Ferdinandos, vowing to avoid falling through the music industry's cracks by building a self-sustaining musical entity from the ground up. The new group began performing around New York, establishing a home base at the East Village club the Living Room, where their intimate gigs generated considerable word-of-mouth and helped them to build an enthusiastic local fan base. Meanwhile their self-released CDs Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos, Crooked Lines and Without You-distributed through Harris' website, www.jesseharrismusic.com drew in listeners from other parts of the world.
The release of The Secret Sun on Verve's Blue Thumb label substantially increased Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos' visibility-and workload. "It was a huge change and a lot of pressure, but it felt good," says Harris. "Traveling around, doing interviews, waking up at five in the morning to go play on local TV shows-all the usual things that you have to do when you've got a record out, but it was such a different way to go for us. We were used to playing once a week, so playing every day had a really positive effect, and I think you can hear that on the new album."
While the Music Lasts confirms the wisdom of Harris' choice to concentrate on making records and touring with the Ferdinandos, rather than taking advantage of his recent notoriety to opt for the more stable, less stressful lifestyle of a professional tunesmith.
"The last couple of years have proved to me that this is the thing that I really want to do," the artist concludes. "Because of everything that happened with Norah, I could have just spent the past year co-writing with people. But I just don't enjoy that kind of thing very much. I have the most fun making music and working with the band, and if given the choice that's how I want to spend my time. I only started singing because somebody had to sing these songs, and being a frontman still feels kind of weird and strange to me. But at this point I don't think I could really do anything else. I feel a certain responsibility to these songs, because if I don't sing them, no one else will."