- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

For Jesse Harris, success has been something of a Faustian bargain. The singer-songwriter wrote a quiet little song of romantic soul-searching, and it became an omnipresent commercial hit.

Hip, hip, hooray, right?

Well, not so fast. Problem is, the song was “Don’t Know Why,” and the singer who made it famous was Norah Jones, the Grammy-winning phenom who rocketed from obscurity last year on the strength of Mr. Harris’ smoky ballad.

The New York-based Mr. Harris has no doubt made a mint in royalties from the song, which earned him a Grammy of his very own (song of the year, which goes to composers). But the fame and the cash have come with a price.

Take, for example, the chalkboard calendar at Iota Club & Cafe, an intimate venue in Arlington where Mr. Harris and his band, the Ferdinandos, performed Monday night.

Next to Mr. Harris’ name was scribbled a parenthetical note, just to ensure everyone was aware of his claim to fame.

“He wrote Norah Jones’ hits,” it said — not exactly how a self-respecting singer-songwriter would want to be identified.

“I can’t say anything negative about it,” Mr. Harris told me after his hour-and-a-half set at Iota. “It’s opened new doors.” At the same time, he added, the Jones association has presented “challenges.”

Before, “I was a singer-songwriter doing my own thing”; now he’s the Guy Who Wrote Norah Jones’ Hits.

Still, being Cole Porter to Miss Jones’ Frank Sinatra is no tragedy, and his work on “Come Away With Me” — he played guitar and wrote five tracks on the multiplatinum album — was classy and capable.

He doesn’t have a voice to match Miss Jones’ rich-hued murmur, but in Mr. Harris’ own material, you can see the architecture of her sound, at turns Americana and jazzy pop.

Mr. Harris’ acoustic style is distinctive; his finger-picked melody lines are what made “Don’t Know Why” so musically inviting, even without Miss Jones’ sultry vocal delivery. Also, drummer Dan Reiser often brushed his snare, the kind of background whoosh over which Miss Jones likes to croon.

But that’s about where the comparison stops.

Mr. Harris’ sound is far more raucous than Miss Jones’. Guitarist Tony Scherr cranked out a noise harsh with feedback and reverb, and with Tim Luntzel on bass, the Ferdinandos rocked hard — too hard, at times, for their frontman’s own good. Mr. Harris’ sweet and reedy tenor occasionally got lost in the tonal scrum.

He opened with a bunch of new, as-yet-unreleased songs Monday night before delving into cuts from “The Secret Sun,” which was released this spring to positive notices.

The most memorable were songs such as “What Makes You,” loose and countrified jangles. An encore cover of Neil Young’s “Mellow My Mind” was another clue to where Mr. Harris’ singer-songwriter heart lies.

He seemed most at home with a harmonica strapped around his neck, the Ferdinandos chugging behind him, at a safe distance from the gossamer world of Norah Jones. There was one nod in her direction with “I’ve Got to See You Again,” one of his donations to Miss Jones.

Is he dogged by calls for “Don’t Know Why”? Thankfully, no.

“That almost never happens,” Mr. Harris said, “and that request has never been honored.”

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