YOUTUBE WATCH – BILLY HARPER
Harper was the debut recording artist for both the Black Saint and Soul Note labels and is, I guess, one of those cult figures among jazz fans who venerate a certain kind of muscular and soulful brand of post-bop that sprang up around the early ’70s and that continues to be played by those of its practitioners still touring, still recording. It’s comfortable within its own limits – the timbral vocabulary of post-Coltrane free jazz (extremes of register, techniques which we designate as ‘honks’ or ‘squeaks’, in our inadequate vocabulary) mixed with the harmonic contours and the (tempered) speed-freakery of post-bop – and yes, truth to be told, it’s perhaps somewhat less adventurous than, say, the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-60s, certainly, in formal terms (many of the pieces that will be played are very much ‘blowing tunes’). But it can blow out the cobwebs and warm the cockles of the heart too, when it wants to, or when you want it to, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Harper’s music, so here goes…
Max Roach Quintet – Italy, 1970
A number of fine saxophonists had passed through Roach’s band during the 60s, including Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins and Gary Bartz, so Harper was not exactly the best-known of the bunch. Added to the fact that this particular group never cut an album for a major label, their performances being represented on record by a couple of live dates from Tokyo and an album entitled ‘Nommo’, released in 1976, and one might call this both Roach and Harper’s ‘forgotten period’. It’s worthy music, however, documented in a nicely (and seemingly genuinely) off-the-cuff manner, in an intimate setting and with the musicians joking around before they begin playing. Harper’s stylings sound, admittedly, rather more ‘straight-ahead’ than we might expect of him – it would take another couple of years for him to fully develop his characteristic mix of a steely, hard-edged tone and strongly emotive, gospel-flavoured melodicism.
Lee Morgan Group – Live on ‘Soul’, 1972
A session for Ellis Haizlip’s TV show ‘Soul’, taped on January 28, 1972, three weeks before Morgan was killed, shot on-stage by an ex-girlfriend with a grudge. Horace Silver’s band (featuring vocalist Andy Bey singing lyrics about the importance of healthy eating) shared the bill. The tune is by bassist Jymie Merritt, from the ‘Last Session’ album, and dedicated to Angela Davis (the band are just launching into Morgan’s signature tune, ‘The Sidewinder’, when the clip cuts out). Morgan is an interesting case: given the success of ‘The Sidewinder’, which started off a trend on Blue Note albums for opening boogaloo tracks intended to become similar hits (Wayne Shorter’s ‘Adam’s Apple’ being one of the better examples), he’s perhaps remembered for the wrong reasons. Fine though ‘The Sidewinder’ is (the record as a whole, and not just that track), the rest of his output contained more variety and subtlety than some might give him credit for. Who knows what might have happened had he not been killed when he was; but, at the start of the seventies, he had started to pursue a new and interesting direction as a leader, absorbing influences from modal and free jazz and fusion to create something more self-consciously ‘advanced’ than his previous work. The results have something in common with some other, rather overlooked albums made by trumpeters at around the same time – Donald Byrd’s ‘Kofi’, Wood Shaw’s ‘Blackstone Legacy’, and Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ – lengthy tracks, occasional use of electric instruments, a sound somewhere between the Miles Davis ‘Second Great Quintet’ and the early, lengthy fusion sides laid down by Davis and the initial Weather Report line-up. This shouldn’t suggest that the musicians were ‘selling out’; on the contrary. Morgan had surely had enough of responding to commercial pressures after being leaned on by Blue Note to reproduce the success of ‘The Sidewinder’; probably, he felt that he had to branch out in a new direction, and fusion’s electric instruments and lengthy tracks were, at that stage, experimental approaches, rather than the bloated, pretentious, or bland noodling that would soon be spawned in abundance. Of course, Morgan’s music of this period was never really ‘fusion’ as such – for one thing, and this is most germane to the subject of this survey, Harper’s playing was never going to fit too easily into that sort of context, having developed from his days with Roach into a much more arresting and individualistic pattern – guttural honks alternating with blazing held upper-notes, coupled to a sense of space and expansive melodicism. One never feels that this was the kind of playing that could be restricted very easily to a one-minute slot: when Harper starts playing, he has plenty to say and he will say it all. Given that fusion’s bloated expansion was what would lead to the gradual demise in marketable creative jazz, it’s perhaps ironic, then, that this music touches on it – but then again, as we’ll see in the next clip, there was plenty of creative jazz at the time that was taking inspiration and even compositional material from the rock sphere without subsuming itself to dullness, stupidity, or pretension – and, in fact, using it to be more experimental.
Gil Evans Orchestra
Harper excels as a big-band player, his big, tough, Texas sound well able to soar out over large groups, as on his own, vocally-enhanced ‘Capra Black’ (carrying on from his contributions to Max Roach’s spirituals record, ‘Lift Every Voice’), or from the ranks of big-bands led by Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Charles Tolliver, and, here, Gil Evans. The Evans big-band of the ’70s and ’80s always struck me as providing a rather different slant on ‘jazz-rock’ to most other groups – whether this be the prog groups from the classical/pop side of the fence, or the jazz musicians trying to get into the electric groove, with increasingly smooth, predictable and anodyne results as the ’70s wore on. Though an electric rhythm section provided a fizzing, street-smart base, the line-up was mostly the standard acoustic fare of the traditional big-band – spiced up, of course, with Evans’ feel and flare for unusual instrumental combinations and solo spots (such as Howard Johnson’s tuba feature on Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Child’). One might well say that the music was less ‘cool’, more ‘hot’ than the more famous collaborations with Miles Davis – there is a times an almost Mingus-like feel, of celebration and urgency and sanctified passion, for which Evans relied heavily on the burning avant-soul stylings of Harper and his successor, George Adams, as well as a pre-sell-out David Sanborn. Harper’s compositions provided further fuel and spark for such directions, ensuring that the music was as much soaked in the blues and ‘spiritual jazz’ as in Hendrix and quasi-rock (though, of course, they were all part of an African-American continuum of expression, for which Evans, a white man who gave the appearance of a lugubrious dandy, had great respect and appreciation). What I love about this big-band, apart from the instrumental textures (which, admittedly, can seem a bit brash and un-subtle, even melodramatic, in comparison to ‘Sketches of Spain’ or ‘The Individualism of Gil Evans’, though they avoid the TV-movie vibe of, say, Lalo Schifrin and Quincy Jones), and apart from the driving soloing of Harper in particular, is how loose it all feels, that combination of spontaneity and even raggedness with complexity and tight scoring shared with the Sun Ra Arkestra. That spontaneity is enhanced by the format here, as an Italian TV broadcast catches the musicians arriving back-stage before we see them in concert.
Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra – Suite for Pops, Part 1
Continuing the big-band vibe in a straighter bag; I’ve never been an enormous fan of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis group, though they were big jazz stars, along with Francy Boland and Don Ellis, in a now rather forgotten vein: not exactly ‘retro’, often spiced-up with trendy elements like sitars or pop covers, but also rather anachronistic in the increasingly electrified world that had swamped acoustic jazz in the wake of ‘Bitches’ Brew’ et al. What these groups were was unerringly professional, a far cry from the prima-donna antics of overpaid white rock stars; their music swung, and, sometimes, could be strong and moving – particularly when someone like Harper showed up to take the band out of the pocket. It’s not quite the same as Gato Barbieri wailing over Oliver Nelson’s arrangements – Harper is set further back than that, as one in a line-up, rather than as star soloist, front-and-centre – but there is an interesting frisson which leads the group to greater heights, rather than seeming ill-matched. More evidence of Harper’s work here would be welcome, though there doesn’t seem to be too much documentation, in video or on record.
Billy Harper Quintet Live 1995
We have to skip forward a good twenty-years now – not that Harper dropped out during the ’80s, though he wasn’t heard much on record, not beginning to regularly release albums again until 1989’s ‘Destiny is Yours’ (which introduced his regular group of Eddie Henderson, Francesca Tanksley, Clarence Seay and Newman Taylor Baker.) 1995 was the year he released one of his very best albums, the two-bass hit ‘Somalia’, and this is somewhat in that vein – extended, meaty tunes played with unwavering resolve, music that says, take me or leave me, this is what it is and this is what I’m going to be doing. No-nonsense, yes, but with a single-mindedness and sense of investment too often lacking in the standards and quasi-hip originals of rather too many acoustic jazz groups both then and now.
Billy Harper Quintet + Choir – Poland, 2007
More than just a simple revisit of ‘Capra Black’ territory, this performance (the entirety of which can be seen on a DVD which I reviewed in this magazine a few years back) ranks among my favourite Harper moments. Working once more with that regular quintet (minus Henderson), Harper’s extrapolations on gospelized themes are given immense, soaring punch by the addition of a Polish choir and extra brass instruments, the church-service elements that always characterise his music really brought to the fore here, without falling into overt and creaking solemnity or sentimentality (as Ellington’s ‘Sacred Concerts’ occasionally did). ‘Cry of Hunger’ hasn’t sounded as magisterial since its recording debut, while this piece, ‘Light Within’, remains exhilarating and joyful precisely because its joy is tempered by a sense of – I don’t know, struggle? Pathos?
Charles Tolliver Big Band – Mourning Variations (Vienne 2007)
Tolliver’s arrangement of a spiritual, commissioned in the ’70s, a time when, post-Jackie McLean, he was flying high, co-running the now-cult label, Strata-East, recording fine big band music with Music Inc. and with smaller groups. A hiatus lasting through much of the ’80s and ’90s finally ended with the return of that big band, playing many of the same compositions, and packed full of fine players, some of whom had been in the earlier ensemble as well. To get an idea of the energy and perhaps unsubtle, but nonetheless utterly thrilling directness of the music, watch Tolliver’s conducting here – physically accenting each ensemble punch, something in the style of Harper’s own ‘Cry of Hunger’ (at least, in one version of the tune recorded live in the early 80s, where enormous pauses between each melodic stab add huge weight and tension, space or silence building up, expanding, and finally bursting into loud sound) – watch the drummer’s face as he takes his cue – ecstasy and seriousness mingling with just the sheer pleasure of it all. Harper is his steely self, rising to altissimo wails at the end of his solo, while Chris Albert takes things into the gospellised bop territory that Tolliver excelled at in the 70s. In both this and Harper’s big-band work, we hear the ensemble as adding heft and grandeur to things (the template perhaps set by Coltrane’s ‘Africa/Brass’ in the early 60s); while some moments sound like they could have come from a small-group bop record, interjections from the whole band during a solo, spurring the soloist on and punctuating their discourse, and sometimes trickily-written out themes, ensure that the music’s orchestral dimension remains central. In terms of mood, we vary from confident affirmation; perhaps the most interesting pieces are the ballads, as in the arrangement of ‘Round Midnight’, also to be found on youtube, where what can seem a soporific and over-familiar theme is turned into, respectively, music for a movie title-sequence (complete with delicious swooping saxophones), a stark contrast between the near-bombast of the ensemble arrangement and the melancholy starkness of Tolliver’s own solo declamation of the familiar melody. Here (I suppose one would call this a ballad, though Tolliver’s repertoire refuses any simple, binary division between slow, romantic love songs and high-tempo bop fire-crackers), the spiritual starts as muted woodwind mourning, ending up as something ecsatically open, still sorrowful but in an affirmative manner (the ‘blutopia’ of the blues impulse), the exhilaration of ‘letting it all hang out’, all-out emotion staying just the right side of dignity and grandeur (I can use those words, right?).
The Cookers – The Core, 2008
Something of a super-group assembled by young trumpeter David Weiss (who also appears alongside Harper in the Tolliver big band clip): Kirk Lightsey (probably best known for playing in The Leaders with Arthur Blythe and Lester Bowie), Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson and Harper. Imagine this line-up in the ‘70s and they would have packed a real punch – and, of course, they still do, though expectation perhaps makes the combination seem less special than it might otherwise (a bit like those reunions of old rock star ‘greats’). But it’s still more than exercise in simple nostalgia, and here we get to see them stretch out for nearly half-an-hour on a single tune, with ample solo space for each musician. Never sniff at a Cecil McBee bass solo! Or the way the group ratchet things up as that solo ends, with the entry of the drums, with the ferocious growl that sets Eddie Henderson’s solo on track, with Lightsey’s equally ferocious comping, Handy’s wailing…It approaches bombast, I guess, but try putting this on – loud! – and telling me it’s not something…It’ll wake you up, that’s for sure…