Selection: Sir Galahad (Harper)
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Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Reggie Workman, bass; Billy Cobham, Elvin Jones, Warren Smith, drums; George Cables, piano; Dick Griffin, Julian Priester, Trombone; Jimmy Owens, trumpet; Barbara Grant, Billy Harper, Gene McDaniels, Laveda Johnson, Pat Robinson, voices on Soulfully I Love You/Black Spiritual Of Love; recording engineer Orville O’Brien (work including Alice Coltrane, Clifford Jordan Charles Tolliver and other Strata East alumni)
Over the years, Harper has recorded and performed with Gil Evans, Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Charles Tolliver, Randy Weston, the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis big band, Art Blakey and others. Now in his mid-70’s, he leads his own quartet and a septet, The Cookers, a star-studded line-up featuring Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Donald Harrison and David Weiss. Says Harper of his line up: “Everybody’s played together at one time or another . We’re connected from a long way back. We also know the history in the same way”. “The Cookers” sounds a fair description.
In mid-2017, Harper attained a degree of international prominence because of his short appearance in the acclaimed jazz film I Called Him Morgan. Standing alongside Lee Morgan at the moment he was shot, a stunned and confused Billy Harper.
“One of a generation of Coltrane-influenced tenor saxophonists with a distinctively stern, hard-as-nails sound on his instrument.“ Harper has a relentless drive other players rarely attain, which partners perfectly with Elvin Jones in “navigating through a meteor storm” mode. Interestingly, despite Harper being leader composer and arranger, he positions himself modestly , ensemble pieces with ample space for his fellow musicians to shine.
Spiritual jazz, high energy, (but not “free jazz”), very much a child of the 70’s. Bold opening statements, big chords repeated several times over before diving into a more modal metre. Brass harmonies from trumpet, trombone and tenor are rich and pungent stew.
Harper’s tenor is rancourous, rasping chainsaw attack, burrowing, digging, somewhere between Coltrane, Henderson and Shepp, but an authentic original voice. the description “Coltrane disciple” doesn’t do him justice. Three drummers are credited, not necessarily playing simultaneously. Everything on acoustic instruments, none of the noodling Fender Rhodes or swooping electric bass that pervaded fusion in those years.
” Harper’s 1973 album Capra Black on the Strata- East label “remains one of the seminal recordings of jazz’s black consciousness movement–a profoundly spiritual effort that channels both the intellectual complexity of the avant-garde as well as the emotional potency of gospel” (Wiki). Side 1 is subtitled Capra, Side 2 is subtitled Black, which is where the track with gospel/voices appears, much in the manner of Donald Byrd’s .eight-voice choir directed by Coleridge Perkinson on New Perspective (1963).
The title Capra Black is apparently a reference to the astrological star sign Capricorn, tenth figure of the Zodiac. Capricorn is ruled by our old friend the planet Saturn, travellers of The Spaceways, please note.
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Vinyl: Denon Jazz 1978 reissue of original Strata East recording from 1973.
Japanese hi fi manufacturers like Denon and Trio associated themselves as audiophile products, saw a natural extension in producing audiophile recordings, with jazz the perfect medium for the Japanese listeners. The source recording is credited to Nippon Columbia, a rich and detailed soundscape several years before the arrival of digital artefacts and the evil silver disc.
I always recommend seeking the original, however this is not always a practical option, so the alternatives need to be considered. Like, when was nothing better than something? Listen to nothing and let me know how it compares. “Well, it was a whole lot quieter…” Yeah. Anything is better than nothing.
Insert and OBI included for completeness, friends from Japan may find something of interest.
Good luck finding Strata East albums in original form, here’s the real thing:
A year after the original Strata East release, in 1974, another Japanese hi-fi company, Trio, put out a edition of Capra Black:
The Denon release came a further three or four years later. I wasn’t planning on including the iconic title track, Capra Black, but on second thoughts, I decided it would be incomplete without, so …
Bonus: Capra Black (Harper)
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Billy is still going strong, featured here only last year at the EFG London Jazz Festival, Church of Sound, E5, sounds like a good place to have been, I’m only sorry I was too late arriving at this party.
Billy Harper was around ten years beyond my musical focus of 1956-66, and he passed me by unnoticed, a big mistake on my part. Listening to him here he is an individual uncompromising voice, who navigated between the siren currents of rock and fusion, treading a difficult path. His music fits well within the authentic genre of Modern Jazz, and he cooks! I had to overcome some strongly-held feelings about Japanese pressings. My only comfort is that it is never too late to right a wrong.
If you were wiser than me (not difficult) and have any Harper stories to tell, the floor is yours.