Billy Harper: Capra Black (1973) Strata East/ Denon

Selection: Sir Galahad (Harper)

.  .  .


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.

Collector’s Corner

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.

©Roger Thomas 2018 – / Billy Harper – Speak to Me of Love, Speak to me of Truth / EFG London Jazz Festival 2018 / Th e Church Of Sound / 16th November 2018 / Billy Harper – saxophone / Robert Mitchell – piano / Yelfris Valdes – trumpet / Moses Boyd – drums / two Dylan – bass /

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.


13 thoughts on “Billy Harper: Capra Black (1973) Strata East/ Denon

  1. I have this original toy. Billy it’s just a competent guy,not a great player,sorry boys…

    (LJC: Sigh. A Jazz Snob…)

  2. Interesting but scarcely related note… The first record released on the Italian Black Saint label was a Billy Harper called….Black Saint.

  3. i saw billy harper in 2011 at Smoke in NYC. he was awesome, and so was his band. this is one of the best on strata east. glad you are enjoying it! you might the john betsch society record, too.

  4. Just want to add a comment to respond to the request for issue evaluations. I first bought the Pure Pleasure re-issue and it will get you by. I don’t Particularly like the Trio label (very dry) so I cant comment. But you can get the original for around $100 with patience and it is very much worth it.

  5. Thanks for you post, insightful as always. I was late to the party on this one too. Other titles on Strata-East get the big money and for good reason, but this is my favorite on the label. Ten years later Elvin’s playing hadn’t lost any of the creativity and intensity of his Coltrane and Shorter recordings. One of those records where it seems everyone had a lot to say.

  6. Can anyone comment on the Pure Pleasure reissue of this? Does it sound good or should I search for the Japanese issue?

    • I have it on good authority – my DJ friend Jean-Claude – that Pure Pleasure’s Strata East reissues are “needle drops” – recordings copied from original Strata East vinyl, which J-C loaned them. People have told me they can hears groove-wear and pops on needle-drops that originate from the original vinyl. I know nothing personally, just hearsay.

      I guess both the Denon and the Trio editions originate from the same source – mastered from a good quality copy tape sent to Columbia Japan. Original Strata East recordings are very good studio quality, and direct lineage to those recordings is important. Personally, I would seek out the Japanese issues.

      • Regarding the the Pure Pleasure RE-ISSUES , JC has had no involvement whatsoever in the reissuing of PP titles and aren’t “needle drops”.
        All their Strata-East tiles, are licensed from Strata-East are mastered from their best available master sources and of the highest sound quality, just read the reviews.

        • Like I said, hearsay, no personal knowledge. “Best available sources” expression is quite opaque, could mean anything, I read it on their site.. What is the problem with declaring the source? Being licensed is not the same as “mastered from original tapes”. These things matter. Happy to set the record straight.

          • Bill Hart interviewed Wendell Harrison last year on his Vinyl Press site, Harrison confirmed that Pure Pleasure didn’t use the masters for their Tribe reissues, even though they exist and Harrison has them, if they didn’t bother for the Tribe reissues then they likely didn’t for Strata East either.

  7. Thanks for the Billy Harper entry !
    A tip from “ the evil silver disc “ front : The Newest Sound you never heard – Jeanne Lee with Ran Blake at the piano .
    Greetings , Walter

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