After the release of Coldwater Flat five months earlier, Three Sounds pianist Gene Harris and bassist Andy Simpkins found themselves faced with yet another personnel change: Donald Bailey, who’d been with group for only two albums, left the group (after replacing founding drummer Bill Dowdy) and was replaced by Carl Burnett. The jazz-pop direction that Harris and Simpkins pursued on the fine Coldwater Flat set — where the trio fronted the Oliver Nelson band and a string section — was followed up here with composer and saxophonist Monk Higgins as arranger, conductor, and co-producer (with Dee Ervin). Elegant Soul, one of two albums Higgins did with the trio, is indeed fittingly titled. The pop tunes on the set include a reading of Tom T. Hall’s hit “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” featuring additional players like drummer Paul Humphrey (who appears on the entire album for added muscle), Alan Estes on vibes, guitarist Al Vesvoco, and nine string players, adding a perverse, lush, deeply soulful sheen with shuffling breaks laid down by Burnett, Humphrey, and a chorus of uncredited female backing vocalists.
The centerpiece of this beautiful — and underappreciated at the time — album is Higgins’ nine-plus-minute “Sittin’ Duck,” with Harris at his hooky gospelized best, playing the hell out of the changes and filling the measures with his requisite taste and feel. The two drummers shuffle in unison, and Estes’ vibes articulate the melody with Harris adding a warmer dimension. The strings are rich, but are employed mostly in the codas and tags, adding to the dramatic weight of the tune, which is otherwise a long, dance-worthy strut. Elsewhere, the strings are varied in their texture on the gorgeous “Sugar Hill”; they outdo those in the hits of the day like Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue,” or even Roger Williams’ “Born Free.” Ervin’s “African Sweets” is one of the set’s highlights, too. It lifts six notes from the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” on top of a happening bass vamp and some slamming snare to introduce the cut. This is down-and-dirty soul-jazz dressed for Saturday night at the club; Harris beats the hell out of the piano’s middle register in pure groove ecstasy. The added flamenco-style guitar and rough-and-rowdy flute solo add to an already heady brew. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg in a sense. Elegant Soul was — and could even be currently — dismissed with a casual listen as lightweight pop with a compelling rhythmic sense. But that would be selling it way short. This album warrants close listening to discern all that’s happening in its production and arrangements. Whether it’s on the dancefloor, for sampling, for feel-good or deep listening, or for finger-popping, it satisfies on all levels. [Previously only available as an import, Elegant Soul was reissued in 2008 as part of Blue Note Records' venerable Rare Groove series.] – Thom Jurek