Billy Harper: Trying To Make Heaven My Home (1979) MPS Germany

LJC wandering off the beated track again, with modal power-tenor Billy Harper.

Selection: Love On The Sudan (Harper)

.  .  .


Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Everett Hollins, trumpet; Armen Donelian, piano; Wayne Dockery, bass; Malcolm Pinson , drums; recorded March 3 & 4, 1979 at Tonstudio Zuckerfabrik,  Stuttgart, Germany.

With us in his late Seventies, Harper is still firing up his stern, hard-as-nails sound tenor. His quintet performed at the end of last year in the NY Zincjazz Boss Tenors Series.



Trying To Make Heaven is a 1979 quintet recording of the incendiary tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, in an extended, hard-blowing session, strong on Harper’s signature tune Love On The Sudan. The Sudan track is a reprise of a 1977 Harper album of that same title, Love On The Sudan (Denon),  but on which the pick is different track, Priestess. If you are following this, well done

For the geographically-challenged, the Sudan is an area of Northern Eastern Africa, just below Egypt, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, Congo and Uganda. I’m sure Sudan is lovely, but for the benefit of any British readers “From 5 November to 2 December 2020, travelling away from home, including internationally, is restricted from England except in limited circumstances, such as for work or for education. It seems Love is not among the exceptions.

Steadfast against the shifting tide of popular jazz taste, Harper developed  his own  musical vision, not following fashion other than being a natty dresser (more on fashion later) . He found his following strongest in Japan, who appreciated his hi-energy delivery, and some of his albums are Japan-only releases.  I think he is wrongly dismissed by some, as in: “you need only one Billy Harper album” (Capra Black (Strata East, 1973)  Yeah, it’s great, but there’s more to enjoy.

I’m a fan of Harper’s  intensity and length of expression, and I confess I’m a sucker for the Love On The Sudan composition. Bitter-sweet opening brass harmonies, attention-commanding  high drama,  tension between tenor running for freedom against  the constraints of the theme, then plunging into a smouldering fire and brimstone pit, a pregnant pause, then roaring off  into the body of the piece, a rollercoaster ride in which modal passages swap with fast-paced rhythmic swing and returns to the Sudan anthem.

It’s good to have more than one Billy Harper album, and Love On The Sudan (Priestess) is another good choice, and I must review his Black Saint album (1975), which helped launchthat great Italian Jazz label of the same name. Admittedly, you can have too many. I  picked up a  Japan-only title Soran-Bushi (1978) , and it was more of the same, a bit indifferent but relentless, not a good combination.

Vinyl: MPS Stereo Germany (1979)

Released on German MPS label,  no doubt due to the fact it was recorded in Germany, no mystery there.

Flares Alert! Billy and the boys sport late ’70s trouser cuffs.

Collector’s Corner

I’ve written on the music, time for something a little more whimsical. In lockdown, where else?

Back in 2014, I introduced a new LJC system of dating vintage record covers, by the width of trouser flares. As a fashion-observer (and part-time social anthroplogist), I saw at first hand, bell-bottom trousers defining my generation. (In my 70s wardrobe there was a pair of black velvet flares with 8″ cuffs, which teamed up with  stack-heeled snakeskin shoes. Today, only the shoes would still fit, six inches short on the waist).

Fashion often rejects the natural shape of the body, or clothing function,  and purposely defines an opposite. Falling down pants?  Who would have thought it. Tribal markings, signalling membership of a tribe, those outside the tribe,  and within the tribe, a heirarchy of leaders and followers.

The LJC vintage records calibration of flare-width  system.

With the exception of the occasional 60’s  retro-revival, the last twenty years has been dominated by the skinny leg. The tight trouser cuff, or ubiquitous sportswear ankle fit, which is short enough to reveal  the absence of socks – a baffling recipe for blisters – but one which folllows the afore-mentioned fashion rule of conspicuous divergence from the sensible.
Billy Harper and the boy’s flares fit in nicely with late 70s, and neatly obscure the issue of socks. That was still to come.
For the purpose of dating record covers, I recommend you swap your copy of Goldmine for Harper’s Bazaar.
UPDATE November 8, 2020
David B had the pleasure last year of attending a screening of the film Morgan, at which Billy Harper was guest speaker. Never one backward in coming forward, David seized the moment to grab an autograph
Good move. The last time I did that was a long time ago.
In a galaxy far far away… Chester Burnett on stage, a few feet away, 300lbs, Built For Comfort, Not For Speed

6 thoughts on “Billy Harper: Trying To Make Heaven My Home (1979) MPS Germany

  1. I really enjoyed that track. Harper has a slightly Riversish ‘gargle’ at times. Exciting stuff, anyway.

    I think the flares method of dating probably needs to be augmented with a ‘pimp hat’ analysis, mind you… There’s almost infinite graduations in 70s headwear and caps…

  2. It is interesting to look at the early contributions before he went out on his own. The Art Blakey Messengers recordings are wonderful around 1968 ( Trip LP in USA and Mercury in Japan) plus the Laserlight CD said to be recorded on a French tour 1968, which features a lovely version of “You don’t know what love is” and a Harper composition “Blues for Eros.”. His work with Gil Evans around 1972 is also interesting as it orchestrates some of his compositions as well as some firebrand solos. “Thoroughbred” and “Priestess” on Masabui Kikuchi + Gil Evans ( Philips Japan) with 2 great solos “Cry of hunger” on Svengali and “Love your love” on Where flamingos fly. Harper is also very strong on the Lee Morgan 2LP on Blue Note from 1971.A RVG recording and features Harpers “Capra Black” and “Croquet Ballet”. Finally check out the 1978 Max Roach Quartet tour recordings especially the 2 volumes done in Amsterdam ( Denon, Japan) with 2 further Harper compositions. “Calvary” and “Call of the wild & peaceful heart”

  3. Last time I saw Billy he was 72 and still blowing up a storm and, it’s got to be said, cutting his usual sartorial dash with a splendid black leather jacket.
    No noticeable flare width in the trouser department though this was 2015 after all.

  4. quite right, LJC. Capra Black is perhaps his magnum opus but “Black Saint” and almost all of the Japan-only releases are essential. This one I do not know. Another for the wantlist.

  5. Quote:
    “It’s good to have more than one Billy Harper album, and Love On The Sudan (Priestess) is a good choice, and I must review his Black Saint album (1975), which help launched that great Italian Jazz label of the same name. Admittedly, you can have too many. I picked up a Japan-only title Soran-Bushi (1978) , and it was more of the same, a bit indifferent but relentless, not a good combination.”

    I can recommend 2 more
    – Baystate RVJ-6083 The Believer – Billy Harper re. 1980/02/15
    – Soul Note SN 1001 Billy Harper in Europe rec. 1979/01/ 24-25

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s