Tag Archives: Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison Launches a New Jazz Room Season, Heralding a New Big-Name Era

Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents Big Chief Donald Harrison

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.2022~Donald Harrison-29

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).

2022~Donald Harrison-08Everybody 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.2022~Donald Harrison-27

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.

Originally published on 4/10 at CVNC.org

The Cookers Heat Up the Cistern

Review:  The Cookers at Spoleto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.comAfter a pandemic-induced hiatus that canceled last-year’s 17-day event, Spoleto Festival USA is back in Charleston for 2021 – but not all the way. Opera, symphony, and choral presentations remain in lockdown, Spoleto’s indoor jazz venue remains shuttered, and the long-anticipated premiere of Rhiannon Gidden’s Omar remains on hold until 2022. The festival’s general director, Nigel Redden, who has announced that he will be stepping down in October after a 26-year stint at the helm, admitted that the efficacy of COVID vaccines and the speed of recovery had wrong-footed Spoleto in their scheduling.

The only indoor events at Spoleto this year were The Woman in Black, on loan from its epic 30-year run in London’s West End, and the daily series of lunchtime chamber music concerts at historic Dock Street Theatre, always the bedrock of the festival. Live dance and music events are otherwise outdoors. With necessity as their mother, a whole brood virtual events, presented online or on your cellphone, has been invented.

Deep in the heart of Trump Country, Spoleto does impose social distancing in arranging seating, and they ask ticketholders to be properly masked until they are isolated in their seating pods. These hardships didn’t seem to dampen the rush on the festival box office, creating a quandary for omnivores like me. Press comps were unavailable for the first 12 chamber music concerts, forcing us to miss the opening weekend with its combo of New Orleans celebrations on successive nights at The Cistern. The first of these featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the second, a tribute to the life and music of multi-instrumentalist Danny Barker, offered Catherine Russell as its featured vocalist.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Since I had reviewed performances by both Preservation Hall and Russell in recent years, I punted on the first weekend and opted for The Cookers on the middle weekend of Spoleto, when access to the chamber music series would also open up. Allowing us to catch up with such heavyweights as George Cables, Cecil McBee, Eddie Henderson, and Billy Hart, all of whom I knew well from recordings but had never seen live, The Cookers were anything but a consolation prize. Then there was also an opportunity to reconnect with Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, two sax greats whom I hadn’t seen on a bandstand in well over 10 years.

If the weather cooperated.

Over and over, I had checked on the forecasts. No wavering from predictions of thunderstorms slated to plague that second weekend – and no contingency plans, the press office told me, if the Saturday night concert were to be rained out. It was a nail-biter, especially after what happened to us on Friday night. My wife Sue and I were nearly finished with dinner when my iPhone beeped with a text telling me that Ballet Under the Stars had been cancelled. By then, rain was pouring down so ferociously that, after paying our bill, we told our waitress to open a dessert tab.

We could be thankful that we made it back to our hotel that night, because the floodwaters near where we had parked reached the tops of our tires at one of the intersections. We soon passed police barricades barring traffic to the streets we had just left moments before.

Ominous clouds loomed overhead as we walked past The Cistern on the night of the concert. Spoleto crew were obviously no more confident than we were. Tentpoles surrounded the bandstand where The Cookers were scheduled to perform, with a white carnival-like canopy protecting the electronics. We speculated that maybe they would perform in a light rain and let the audience fend for themselves. Or maybe The Cookers were merely having a cookout.

As we took our seats underneath one of The Cistern’s live oaks, the stage crew moved the tentpoles and canopy off the staging platform minutes before the 9:00pm start. Apparently, local radar had given the band a green light. But for how long? We’ve seen scenarios – including just two years ago, when Carla Bley brought her trio to The Cistern – when festival officials, citing an oncoming storm, forced the performers to curtail their program.

Fortune smiled on us, for the band not only stayed onstage for the scheduled hour-and-a-quarter, they overstayed, lingering longer than 90 minutes. Some might also say they overcooked, for these were mostly searing, incendiary performances. The only mellowing agents all evening long were bassist McBee, who merely smoked on his solo in his own “Peacemaker,” and trumpeter David Weiss, organizer of the group and its spokesman, whose sizzling hot solos actually seemed to cool things down amid this torrid zone of horns.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Tenor saxophonist Harper, brooding by the keyboard near Cables and playing a gruff, disconnected cadenza, clued us into how it would be. This turbulence was before Harper joined the other horns downstage for the four-barreled launch of his “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart,” the title tune of the band’s most recent release. Within moments of this brash and brassy opening salvo, Harper seemed to have the stage all to himself, totally possessed as he unleashed a snarling, squealing, epic rant that announced he was ready for more than a cutting contest – he was geared-up for a knife fight.

When Henderson returned to his mic with his trumpet, and when Harrison followed with his alto sax, each man soloed as if Harper’s gauntlet had been tossed at him, dueling with the tenor great and with each other. After Henderson answered Harper’s fury with some awesome flame throwing, Harrison didn’t flinch, firing off a face-melting solo of his own. Arrangements for this and three other Cookers tunes from past CDs were looser live than in their studio versions, encouraging all this calculated fury and derangement. If you caught the body language of whoever was blowing and the next man up, you were hip to the fact that there was no ironclad limit to the solos.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

With relative subtlety, the rhythm section of Cables, McBee, and Hart seemed relegated to timekeeping toward the rear of the bandstand as the men with the horns jousted in the foreground. Like McBee in “Peacemaker,” both the pianist and drummer got their shots. Cables set up his own composition, “The Mystery of Monifa Brown,” which was the only tune in the set not previously recorded by the septet. On the Cistern stage, the group totally transformed the tune from what it was on the 2016 Songbook album with Cables’ trio. Not only did the addition of the horns bring fresh fire, Cables himself thundered in a way that came far closer to the sound and percussive fury of McCoy Tyner.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

As often happens in live concerts, drummer Hart got his chance to shine in the finale, Wayne Shorter’s “The Core,” after yet another searing peroration from Harper’s tenor. The sizzle of Billy’s cymbals and the barrage on his toms left scorched earth in his wake.

Paradoxically, Henderson may have received the most precious gift of the night as the Harper tune of the set, “If One Could Only See,” gave the trumpet ace an opportunity to slow the tempo – an oasis of meditative calm amid the livid flame-broiling at The Cistern. For many in the crowd, the change of pace may have come as a revelation, but for those of us who have followed the group since their genesis in 2010, it was a reminder that The Cookers can still deliver when they turn down the heat.

Jazz at Spoleto culminates this weekend with Jason and Alicia Moran’s co-production, Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. Instead of Reconstruction, the Morans will be focusing on the music of 1910-1970 – and the key moments that forged so much of modern American music afterwards. Aside from the Morans, Wycliffe Gordon and the Imani Winds are among the talents gathered under the live oaks at The Cistern for this musical narrative.