Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents Big Chief Donald Harrison
By Perry Tannenbaum
April 8, 2022, Charlotte, NC – With teeming pedestrians, barhoppers, diners, and operagoers overflowing Uptown sidewalks, Charlotte’s nightlife was livelier and more exuberant than I’d ever seen it on a Thursday night when we went to see the opening performance of Opera Carolina’s Aïda. Excitement among jazz fans, meanwhile, was ramping up to unprecedented levels as Middle C Jazz Club continued its surge, after seeing its initial momentum blunted by the pandemic within months of its launch in late 2019, and JazzArts Charlotte began its 16th Jazz Room season, clearly its most high-profile lineup to date. NEA Jazz Master – and second-generation Big Chief of New Orleans’ Congo Square – Donald Harrison headlined the opening of Jazz Room’s new season on Friday with a two-night stand at the Stage Door Theater, setting up a rather awesome jazz evening around Charlotte as Kat Edmonson makes her Charlotte debut on Saturday with a couple of seatings at Middle C.
Never have two jazz stars of such magnitude performed at the same time in the Queen City on multiple stages, nor have we ever seen such big names simultaneously in two small venues. That’s not all. Jazz at the Bechtler, piloted by saxophonist Ziad Rabie, has regained its stride, recently featuring Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon; and pianist Lenore Raphael, North Carolina’s bebop bubby, will be playing at the Coffey Thompson Art Gallery on the same night that Harrison and Edmonson hold forth. Nor have the big venues been vacated, with Chris Botti performing at Knight Theater last month and Diana Krall slated for April 19 at Belk Theater.
Blowing his alto sax, Harrison proved to be as prodigious as any of these other headliners – and with some vocalese, hip-hop, and dance moves tossed into his gumbo, maybe the most eclectic and unpredictable. After his opening “Free to Be,” a herky-jerky, stop-and-go performance ranging from Duke Ellington to James Brown, Harrison rambled into ragtime, bebop, smooth jazz, Latin, and New Orleans funk. Having mentored such diverse artists as Esperanza Spaulding, Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty, and The Notorious BIG, Harrison splashed rather than tiptoed into all of these waters.
He spoke with ease about Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist and clarinetist whose arrangement of “Maple Leaf Rag” hipped him to the intricacies and difficulties of Scott Joplin’s music. Harrison played with nearly unrelenting fire all evening long, so the fine solos by pianist Dan Kaufman and guitarist Detroit Brooks were, relatively speaking, islands of calm and order between the sax’s stormy tirades. New to the group, drummer Brian Richburg quickly proved he was capable of returning fire, his solo on “Free to Be” evoking memories of Max Roach (1924-2007).
Everybody in the group, including bassist Noriatsu Naroaka, had a chance to trade four-bar salvos with Richburg at the end of Harrison’s impressive tribute to bebop, “One for Bird.” Perhaps because has staring straight at a famous photo of Charlie Parker hanging at the rear of the house, Harrison sounded more like the immortal Yardbird than he did on his 2004 studio recording of the tune, spraying numerous quotes from Parker’s compositions into his driving solo before yielding the stage to Kaufman, Brooks, and Naroaka, gearing up for the climactic free-for-all with Richburg.
More often tinged with the sound and style of John Coltrane, Harrison’s customary timbre returned as his quintet dug into “Take the Coltrane,” the original that Ellington brought with him to the revered Duke Ellington & John Coltrane recording session in 1962 (for the same Impulse label that Harrison would later sign with). After a long interlude introducing his bandmates, starting with some shtick and proceeding with digression after digression, Harrison still had enough left for an epic, breathtaking rant, another tribute to a towering sax giant. This would have been the apex of a normal set as Kaufman and Brooks were able to follow their leader with some of their best work.
Yet despite a seeming lull as Harrison shuffled into “Mr. Cool Breeze,” a smooth jazz confection that the NEA Master had written in response to a sobriquet bestowed upon him by Lena Horne, Big Chief had plenty more. The sound was akin to all those Grover Washington hits, effortlessly spun over a steady backbeat, very much like the instrumental Harrison had recorded for the first time in 1998, maybe even nodding to Washington’s famous “Mister Magic” as guitarist Brooks got to share some of the spotlight – but the version at Stage Door suddenly spouted a stream of vocalese from Harrison, climaxing in a proclamation that was nearly a lyric.
Before coming home to New Orleans with a performance of “Hey Pocky Way” that looked like a funky sax shout wedded to a street dance, Harrison went on a spicy excursion to Puerto Rico with a tune by pianist Eddie Palmieri (1936- ), a Latin icon with whom Big Chief has recorded at least five times since the mid-90s. I didn’t catch the titles of the closer, best rest assured that it was laced with more Harrison vocals and virtuosity. Even before his encore, Harrison’s triumph was assured, and after, we all rose to our feet without the slightest urging.