Zacc Harris Group ‘Small Wonders’ CD (Shifting Paradigm) 4/5

The most immediate thing that hit me when I started to listen to guitarist Zacc Harris’ latest release, is that guitar sound. Ooh yes, do I like that. It’s natural, earthy, with a touch of the old blues drive to give it that nice bit of edge. Very nice indeed. “Small Wonders” is his group’s second album, Harris’ third as leader. Also featuring John Raymond on trumpet and flugelhorn, Brandon Wozniak on tenor sax, Bryan Nichols on piano, Chris Bates on bass and JT Bates on drums, this sextet is a proper jazz group… all in tune with one another and playing openly and freely throughout the entire album.

Bandleader Harris takes constant inspiration from the mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. History being what it is, no rational modern player could aim to compete with that group’s accomplishments, but few are harmed by its influence. As a generalisation, I’d say Harris’ compositions perhaps lean toward a Blue-Note era Wayne Shorter, with his expressive sextet displaying similar qualities to the style of writing heard on those classic 60’s albums.

The album’s title refers to Harris’ two children, who are pictured on the cover, and much of the album is inspired by the joys – and struggles – of parenting young children. Harris and his wife were about to have their first child around the time of his 2012 release “The Garden”. In the years that followed, as many parents will attest to, projects moved somewhat slower due to the patter of tiny feet and the demands that they bring, so it took a while to amass a book of songs he considered worthy of the group’s follow-up. “Small Wonders” was worth the wait.

The opener “Ominous Skies” sets the tone for the album perfectly. A quintessential jazz sound that’s fresh and stylish sparkles from my speakers, the septet playing as a collective, with Harris’ solo lifting this tune even further. The softly spoken Latin groove of “Sundials” features lovely interplay between sax, trumpet and guitar, with the class rhythm section bang on the money. “Glass Houses” is a waltz on which the Bates brothers demonstrate how beautifully they complement each other and the music they’re playing, allowing the soloists to play with a silky-smooth freedom. A distinct change of pace and flavour greets the listener on “Civil Dawn”, a nautical term that describes the moment light breaks over the horizon. “A Beautiful Life” was written as a eulogy for Adam Johnson, a neuroscientist with who the guitarist was friends. The touching tribute was composed in one sitting after visiting Johnson in hospital, days before his death. “The Void” really allows all six musicians to stretch out and play in mouthwatering fashion, and “Mixed Signals” features some compelling piano soloing within its open, melodic perimeters, with Harris’ classy guitar playing shining a light on the tune’s alluring lyricism. “Apple Jacks” gives a welcome nod to Ahmad Jamal, a favourite of Harris’ younger child, Evan. The album closes with my favourite piece on the entire album, the contemplative, yet beautiful “Maya Song”. Written for his daughter, its deceptive simplicity shows what an intelligent writer Harris is.

There’s a warm, thoughtful narrative running through this recording, not surprising given the inspiration behind the tunes. With skill and focus, the sextet bring the tracks to life, making it very enjoyable to listen to. Not overly challenging, but not too easy either, there’s a good balance throughout, the performances matching the quality of the compositions, resulting in a fine album from the Zacc Harris Group.

Mike Gates