Sunday, December 25, 2011

Billy Harper's Bluesprint Of Hard Bop

This is the second of three reviews I did reviewing the initial batch of releases on the Taking House Records series, Blueprints Of Jazz. I received review copies I believe in Jazz & Blues Report, but I am unaware if this review ever ran. I will be running the other reviews in the next several days.

A series of new releases from Talking House Records, Blueprints Of Jazz, shines the spotlight on lesser known innovators and style-setters in jazz. Series co-producer Marc Weibel noted the series “is unique in that it presents a collection of modern recordings by some of the few remaining musicians that have a true historical connection to jazz scene of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. … Blueprints of jazz gives the casual jazz fan a chance to discover significant jazz artists they weren’t aware of before - artists that are peers with the jazz legends they’re already familiar with. The series first releases spotlight drummers Mike Clark and Donald Bailey along with saxophonist Billy Harper. each is handsomely packaged with digipacs that include liner booklets as well as use modern and vintage photographs, the latter using or evoking the classic work of Francis Wolff and used not only in the booklets, but the back cover and the disc labels.

Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper is one of the unsung heroes of the seventies, playing with Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Lee Morgan, randy Weston, McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey to name a few. His classic album, The Black Saint, gave the Italian label its name. His present new album, Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 2, allows him to showcase not simply his own playing but also mix in the poetry and narration of Amiri Baraka on the history of jazz during several of the compositions. In addition to Baraka’s spoken word and his own tenor sax and vocal, his band here includes Francesca Tanksley on piano; Aaron Clark on drums and percussion; Keyon Harrold on trumpet and flugelhorn, Charles McNeal on alto sax; and Clarence Seay and Louis Spears split the bass duties. With the exception of Harper’s adaptation of Amazing Grace, this disc features Harper’s original compositions.

The opening tune is Africa Revisited an adaptation of Coltrane’s Africa which opens with the two bassists followed by the horns firing on all cylinders and cooking a stormy brew as Baraka enters with Part One of Where Dat Stuff Come From?, a recitation about the history of music taking us back to the roots of Africa, middle passage and the transportation of the musics creators back to the US, with Harper’s tenor soaring while Baraka pauses then resumes his history of jazz as Harrold bursts through with a machine-gun like attack while Baraka invokes Buddy Bolden and St. James Infirmary in his music history. Harper’s Knowledge of Self is an older Harper piece with the bassists kicking off its strutting groove as Baraka continues Part 2 of his recitation with Tanksley’s piano prominent followed by Harper’s aggressive tenor playing. Another Kind of Thoroughbred is a mid-tempo blues, with concise, fiery solos from Harper and Harrold.

Thoughts and Slow Actions, originally written for a play, is a pensive number opening with Harper’s intense tenor contrasting with Tanksley’s introspective piano along with Harper’s wordless vocal.Who Can Judge Our Fates, is a stunning number with Tanksley evoking Tyner, while Harper’s blistering solo takes off from Coltrane’s inspiration but finds his own direction followed by Harrold’s bright, crisp brass flight. The traditional spiritual Amazing Grace opens with Harper singing the classic lyrics before through overdubbing, duets with his saxophone while Tanksley on keyboards synthesizes a string session. After the stirring Cast the First Stone? (… If You have Yourself No Sins), with its engaging riff, the album returns to its beginning on Harper’s Oh … If Only, a hot Blakey styled cooker coupled with Baraka’s recitation, Where Does the Music Come From? as he asks “Who knows how the heart became an instrument?” as the music swirls powerfully under him. These ears find the pairing of the Baraka and Harper’s insistent group compelling although others might react differently.

Billy Harper remains one of the most vital of the post-Coltrane tenors still with us and the passion, imagination and intelligence displayed in his playing and compositions here lead one to wonder why he is not a household name among jazz listeners.

Here is Billy Harper in a performance that includes pianist Francesca Tanksley.

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