Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Billy Harper - Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 2 (Talking House Records, 2008)

One of the finest tenor saxophonists to emerge in the wake of John Coltrane, Billy Harper took Coltrane's deep spiritual sound and used it as a blueprint to make his own original and potent musical voice. The Blueprints of Jazz Series is designed to raise awareness on under-recorded musicians, and they certainly succeed here since it has been nine years since Harper last recorded as a leader. This album deviates a little from his previous recordings by adding the poetry of Amiri Baraka on several tracks to a band consisting of Keyon Harrold on trumpet and french horn, Charles McNeal on alto saxophone, Francesca Tanksley on piano, Clarence Seay and Louis Spears on bass and Aaron Scott on drums and percussion. Baraka's poetry can be a bit of an acquired taste, but in this case he avoids his most controversial topics and sticks to reciting verse about race relations and the history of African-American music, subjects he knows very well. "Africa Revisited" and "Knowledge of Self" both feature high energy post bop improvisations by the band with Baraka's poetry overdubbed on top of them. The music is typically excellent with the dual bassists and drummer providing a massive rhythmic bottom, and longtime Harper confederate Tanksley contributing McCoy Tyner like piano accents. Harper's playing is as strong as ever with great deep gales of saxophone reverberating throughout the music, while Baraka expounds on race and discrimination in the first song and the history of jazz in the second. "Another Kind Of Thoroughbred" is an instrumental performance featuring stomping tenor saxophone full of grace and power, and a rippling piano solo. Both the original "Thoughts And Slow Actions" and the spiritual "Amazing Grace" (with some vocals and soulful harmonizing by Harper) are taken at a ballad pace, recalling the majesty of John Coltrane's great ballad performances like "After the Rain" and "Alabama." Billy Harper is one of my favorite saxophonists so it is hard to be objective about his albums. I liked this quite a bit although I'm not a real big fan of the poetry and jazz experiments. His playing and the playing of the band as a whole is very exciting and inspiring on this music, and the poetry does nothing to diminish that effect.
Blueprints Of Jazz Vol. 2 -

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