Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Billy Harper in Pittsburgh

This past Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater, Billy Harper's Sextet put on one of the best jazz shows in a year that's been full of a lot of them. (Click here to read my preview at City Paper.) Harper played like a keeper of the Coltrane flame, with a fiery tone that can't be ignored and an exploratory nature that kept taking the energy down new avenues. And because of the latter quality, he was clearly doing more than paying tribute to his mighty peer. (Harper landed in New York in 1966, so he can be considered a contemporary of Trane.)

"Illumination" kicked off the evening and proved this was no ordinary show. The stop-start theme of the song sounded tense and edgy with the whole band playing it rigidly. It created suspense, waiting for the rhythm to kick in. When it did, Harper was ready to put off some heat. Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix did the same, playing a call and response with himself during a solo.

Unfortunately the sound mix preferred Aaron Scott's cymbals over the piano of Harper's longtime bandmate Francesca Tanksley, so the wild accents overshadowed a lot of her playing. It took a few songs for the balance to be reached. Alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw didn't fare as well. His solos could be heard for the most part, but it was hard to really feel them throughout the evening.

But magically, the so-so mix didn't diminish the impact of the sextet's performance. Harper spoke during our interview about the healing power of music, and while I might not have been in need of healing per se, there was definitely a moving quality to the band. "This is what happens when you have a good audience," Harper said.

Some of the tunes are things he's recorded and returned to on a few albums, but they all felt new that night: the massive "Thy Will Be Done," which closed the first set; "Africa Revisited," the groove-heavy piece that featured poetry by Amiri Baraka when it was released a few years ago on Blueprints of Jazz; and "Harper's Funny Val" (at least that's what it sounded like he called it) took the old warhorse "My Funny Valentine," slowed it down and made it more spiritual. These were just a few of the high points.

30 years ago, the Shadyside Balcony - a landmark on Walnut Street during the '80s and '90s as an eatery and a place to hear jazz - presented a concert series that included shows by the World Saxophone Quartet, James "Blood" Ulmer and Archie Shepp. I was there for those shows because my brother worked at the Balcony, and its sister restaurant Hot Licks, which was located downstairs. I didn't know until last Saturday that the first of these performances (which were produced by a production company called Kokopelli) was none other than Billy Harper, who was touring as Black Saint at the time. That was the name of one of his albums, which was the first record released by the Italian label Black Saint. The picture on the label of all their records is Billy Harper, by the way.

I wish I had been at that show back then and I can't understand how it flew under my radar. Who knows what kind of impact his set might have had on me then? Nevertheless I did see him last week and for that I'm glad.

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