Back in the early '90s, drummer Winard Harper was one of the young lions of jazz, widely admired for co-leading the Harper Brothers band with sibling Philip Harper on trumpet.
A couple decades later, the drummer finds himself in a very different position, leading his own band – and surrounded by musicians making a youthful roar of their own.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Harper told the audience Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where he's playing through Sunday. "It's the young crop – they used to say that about me."
But if 20-plus years ago Harper showed what a young jazz musician could achieve, he now has evolved quite naturally into a very different but perhaps more important role: mentor. He gave the emerging players who shared the bandstand with him plenty of room in which to solo, experiment, test themselves. Some of their work proved compelling; some not. But there was no doubt that Harper was doing his part to nurture the next generation, and the younger musicians certainly played fervently for him.
It must have been somewhat daunting for emerging artists Lynn Grissett, on trumpet, and Jon Beshay, on tenor saxophone, to find themselves powering the front line of Harper's quintet. Each is still finding his way, much as Harper was a generation ago. So there was tentativeness about some of their solos, as well as a great deal of promise.
Trumpeter Grissett produced his best work in the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is," which Harper essentially turned over to him. Grissett accepted the challenge, crafting extended and substantial solos packed with melodic incident. The gauziness of Grissett's opening phrases showed the underlying poetry of his art, while the tonal brilliance of his closing statements pointed to the urgency of his playing. Grissett's solos may have been a bit amorphous at times, but there was no doubting the unhurried lyric beauty of this music.
Saxophonist Beshay also had plenty of ideas, the musicality and bebop-influenced language of his work unmistakable in uptempo pieces and ballads alike. Technically, he also was quite proficient, bringing considerable energy to the proceedings. But Beshay was less successful in imbuing his rather opaque tone with nuance, inflection and depth of sound. He can construct a solo with a composer's clarity, as he did in Sonny Clark's "Something Special." But without a richly layered timbre, his statements weren't as compelling as they could have been.
Roy Assaf provided plenty of glistening pianism, and bassist Noah Jackson was unabashedly melodic throughout, but drummer Harper ultimately did much of the heavy lifting here. His virtuosic solos and surging accompaniments in "Something Special," and elsewhere, summed up his role in this band. Without the speed and precision of his technique – as well as his finesse with color, line, phrase and pitch – this ensemble would have made vastly less impact. How satisfying it would have been, then, to have heard Harper with players of comparable experience.
Nevertheless, none of this band's work was less than musical, the instrumentalists playing several selections from Harper's most recent recording, "Coexist." The front line blended tone delicately in "Helen's Song" and conjured soulful, down-home expression in "Hard Times," both from the album.
Like drummer Art Blakey and others, Harper is training the next generation in the best way possible: by taking young musicians on the road.
Bravo for that.Winard Harper Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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