Chris Corsano on Betty Harris “There’s A Break In The Road”


Part two of the Orcutt-Corsano Hidden Gems naturally falls to Chris Corsano’s pick. There are no real set rules to this feature and even if there were I’d break them all the same for this pick. Chris eschews the album focus in favor of a soul single that’s anchored deep by a drumming legend. As Chris is himself a powerhouse collaborator who elevates any project he anchors, its wise to sit up and listen when he’s recommending a song based on how hard the drummer sweats it out. If you’re unfamiliar with Corsano’s catalog, then its fair to say you might have missed a great deal of the best moments in experimental music in the last decade. Aside from his multiple collaborations with Bill Orcutt he’s found himself crumbling the cosmos alongside Joe McPhee, Paul Flaherty, Okkyung Lee, Bill Nace, Nels Cline and Thurston Moore among others. Check out Corsano’s discovery of Betty Harris’ 1969 single and the world shaking impact its had on him.

Expands on how this single came into his orbit Chis recalls, “In 2016, the photographer, videographer, dj, organizer, all-around-cool-cat Julia Dratel played it for me and I had to scoop my jaw up off the floor. Betty Harris is a fantastic singer. If the constant rip-off vampirism of the music industry hadn’t forced her to quit in the early 70s, she’d be better known as one of the all-time greats. Her voice sounds incredible on songs like “Mean Man”, “I’m Gonna Git Ya”, “Trouble with My Lover”, etc… and the emotion she can pour into “What Did I Do Wrong?” will lay you OUT flat, jack. AND this track is produced by Allen Toussaint with the Meters as the band. BUT it’s not the great Ziggy Modeliste on drums. Instead, it’s James Black, a New Orleans jazz and R&B and funk drummer who I hadn’t heard before Julia played me “There’s a Break in the Road.”

“James Black played with Nat Adderly,” explains Corsano, “and Ellis Marsalis, and he cut about 5 records with Yusef Lateef in ’64 & ’65. By 1967/68 he was playing on all these killerrrrrrr New Orleans funk tracks, mostly with Eddie Bo. Anyway, he’s always brilliant, but it’s on a whole other level on “There’s a Break in the Road.” The Eddie Bo track “Hook & Sling” comes close, but I still think this is my favorite James Black because Betty Harris and the rest of the band is just as funky and deep into it as he is.”

As usual I ask if the record has influenced Chris’ own playing or seeped into his approach to songwriting. He notes,”Hearing The Meters for the first time was HUGE for me, way back when. I think I was 16 or 17, and there was an hour-long broadcast on WKCR. I couldn’t even believe how good this band that I’d never heard of was. Especially the hook-up of rhythm section of Ziggy Modeliste and George Porter Jr. Hearing “There’s a Break in the Road” kind of brought me back to that feeling. For me, there’s this kind of thing with some drummers with how they space the bass drum and snare…there’s a specific kind of “bounce” to it. Ed Blackwell had it going with Ornette Coleman. Ziggy and James Black have it, big time. I don’t want to be too reductive and say it’s just a New Orleans second line thing, because there are a lot of drummers out there and I haven’t heard enough to categorically say much of anything about anything. But, I know what I like. And this is something I like, a lot. So, if I’m lucky and if it’s the right time for it, some very lowly mutant-version of what this bounce means to me will seep into my playing. I’m sure it doesn’t sound that way to anybody else in the world, and admittedly, I’m talking more about the internal feeling I get instead of a specific rhythmic figure or anything like that.”

This is one of those instances where I love this feature. I too had not heard this Betty Harris track, and as Chris notes it hits hard! Its definitely up there with any essential soul/funk cut in your record rack and should shake up any party or just bolt you out of the door in the morning. Thankfully the love of this track is not merely consigned a smattering of afficionados and DJs, but has come to the attention of the reissue circuit as well. Soul Jazz has reissued the single in conjunction with Sound of the Universe and its possible to get your hands on an untouched vinyl copy these days. Naturally I’d recommend doing so without a moment’s hesitation. Likewise, Corsano’s collaboration with Bill Orcutt skews to the essential and if you’re picking up hard hitting records, that should be next on your list.

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