Soul Symphony was the last album cut by the Three Sounds, of which pianist Gene Harris remained the only original member. Bassist Andy Simpkins left after 1968's wonderful Elegant Soul LP, and was replaced on this date by "the Skipper," Henry Franklin. This date is a direct follow-up to its predecessor, in that Monk Higgins returns to orchestrate and arrange a large string group; he co-produced the set with Dee Ervin. Also returning from the previous session is the criminally under-recognized vibraphonist/percussionist Alan Estes. In addition, David Duke and Art Maebe alternately played French horn, Buddy Collette guests on flutes, Freddy Robinson appears on guitars, and the Specialties Unlimited -- vocalists Clydie King, Mamie Galore, and Alex Brown -- are utilized. In other words, other than a second drummer, Soul Symphony shares a nearly identical setup with Elegant Soul. But as the music attests, that's no crime, particularly when it's this earthy. A key difference between these sides is that on this date Higgins wrote or co-wrote all five of these selections with Ervin. The feel, despite the strings and additional musicians, is a bit grittier. There are no covers of pop tunes, and blues, gospel, and funk (via the Horace Silver definition of the term) are thus the sole modus operandi in these tunes.
The set kicks off with the title cut, a nearly 26-minute opus by Higgins. It may be called a symphony, but it comes off more as a suite, with numerous interludes, asides, and thematic structures all feeding into and off of one another, almost all of them rooted in the I-IV-V blues progression. Harris is just dynamite throughout; his in-the-pocket runs, popping rhythmic accents, and tags where ostinati feed into vamps are infectious. Franklin plays electric bass here, adding more weight to Carl Burnett's crackerjack rimshots and breaks. "Repeat After Me" is a pure gritty soul rave-up; Harris articulates the theme as Franklin plays a choppy riffing bassline. Collette is overdubbed on his flutes, lending a whimsical air as the strings enter, but Harris brings it right back down to the floor, turning it into a call-and-response gospel number -- almost. Another winner is the all too brief "Popsicle Pimp," with its rolling funky street swagger and imaginative use of the French horn to almost cinematic effect. Ultimately, Soul Symphony is a fine -- if not quite as imaginative -- follow-up to Elegant Soul. That said, it may lend itself to the favor of jazz fans more because of its blues roots, and Harris' vampy improvising style here comes right out of the hard bop fake book. It is also evident that this set was as far as Harris and Higgins could take this format -- it was the third orchestral album in a row for the Three Sounds (the first, 1968's Coldwater Flat, was recorded with the Oliver Nelson Orchestra and featured loads of brass), and showcased the trio's basic sound in many different settings. Harris would dissolve this group and make it as a solo act. But Soul Symphony is far from a throwaway; it's a deeply grooved-out tough record with all of the Three Sounds magic on full view, and is highly recommended to any fan of soul-jazz or beat hunting. Soul Symphony was finally released in America on CD in 2008 as part of Blue Note's Rare Groove series.] ~ Thom Jurek