9:38 AM CST, November 16, 2012
When New Orleans alto saxophonist Donald Harrison plays the Jazz Showcase, he typically pairs a deep mastery of bebop language with a musical sensibility forged in the Crescent City.
But there was nothing typical about Harrison's performance Thursday night at the Showcase, where he veered far from expectations.
Harrison drew heavily on the music and techniques of his album "Quantum Leap," its title articulating the man's desire to vault into alternative vocabularies. Though some facets of this music-making were more compelling than others, there was no question that Harrison was venturing into risky territory.
Longtime followers of Harrison's music already know of his adventures in merging jazz improvisation with the musical rituals of New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indians, but this was something different. Imagine hard-driving, sometimes frenzied alto solos supported by pulsing funk backbeats from a taut rhythm section, and you have a rough idea of what much of this work was about.
In his most daring moments, Harrison alternated profusions of notes with comparatively simple, telegraphic phrases. Some of Harrison's riffs kept returning with relentless insistence; others morphed into to shattering blasts of sound; still others telegraphed a few essential notes over and over again.
In effect, Harrison in these passages was producing a kind of hard-edged, high-energy, 21st century jazz-funk, a music that nearly overwhelmed the ear at some junctures and pulsed with difficult-to-resist dance rhythms at others.
Harrison set the emotional temperature of the evening quite high from the outset, launching bluesy exclamations and churning rhythms in "Free to Be." Everything here sounded emphatic, from Harrison's sonic eruptions to his colleagues' surging instrumental accompaniment. The music barely breathed amid great waves of decibels.
In the title cut to "Quantum Leap," Harrison sabotaged his customary approach even further, pacing his rhythmic accents in such a way as to obscure the beat. And in "Young MJ," a jazzman's tribute to Michael Jackson, Harrison opened with staccato thematic snippets that he developed into ornate, pop-tinged lines. The sheer athleticism of this playing forced listeners to pay attention, though there was far more Donald Harrison than Michael Jackson to be heard here.
Some of this nearly hysterical playing became a bit repetitive during the course of Harrison's first set, the evening crying out for a tender balladry that Harrison can produce with the best of them. His beboppish account of the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me" wasn't exactly the breather that was called for, yet there was no denying the appeal of Harrison's quick-and-skittish lines and characteristically ripe tone.
Perhaps to give his listeners a musical anchor, Harrison revived the bebop warhorse "Cherokee," taking a whirlwind tempo that would have impressed an earlier generation of virtuosos who turned the tune into a proving ground. Harrison's version counted as a technical tour de force; he clearly has been practicing.
The young musicians in his band were up for the experiments, with tremendous zest and considerable precision of attack from drummer Joe Dyson and brawny statements from bassist Max Moran, the two constantly egging Harrison on. Pianist Zaccai Curtis showed plenty of sensitivity and finesse but, alas, that was not exactly what this music called for. With Harrison, Dyson and Moran often going full tilt, Curtis' meticulously sculpted, single-note lines disappeared from the sonic environment. Too bad.
For the rest of the engagement, however, Chicago piano powerhouse Willie Pickens – a frequent Harrison collaborator – will be joining the band. Pickens' enormous sound and ultra-sophisticated approach to harmony could give this ensemble welcome tonal heft.
The only question is whether the rest of the band will be able to keep up.
Donald Harrison Quartet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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