Billy Harper is one of several veteran tenor players who seem more esteemed than listened to. Harper has won grants and critics polls, but not the popularity most musicians crave. In addition to Harper I'm thinking of Anthony Braxton and Pharaoh Sanders. The three all have extraordinarily broad musical styles, and that's part of the reason you don't hear them more often. You never know what to expect from one recording or performance to the next--whether to invite your slightly square uncle to go with you to the concert or not. They also share an intense commitment to going their own way. Pleasing an audience is important, but not the first priority.
Harper doesn't disappoint my random expectations here, though he would often disappoint your uncle. The concert begins with a bluesy, chorus-assisted tune that would be only slightly out of place on a smooth jazz station; "Light Within" is soulful and easy on the ears. Harper sounds peaceful, even mellow. But the music becomes gradually further out until, by the time the concert wraps up with "Cry of Hunger", the chorus is improvising whatever they feel and sounding like an unorganized rioting crowd. Meanwhile Harper is barking with that metal mouthpiece and number 46 reed (so I exaggerate), and your hypothetical uncle is covering his ears. Things do cycle back to the tune they started with as Harper credits the musicians. What to make of it?
I guess jazz has many mansions, and nobody says Billy Harper can't live in all of them at one time or another, So, the next question is, how good is the concert? Well, interesting rather than consistently exciting. The audience seems appreciative, but never gets much beyond polite applause.
The interest begins with the venue, a large cathedral in Poland with a beautiful interior, aglow with the light of candles. Visual variety is maintained through the intelligent use of eight cameras. The acoustics cause the echoing sound you'd expect, but it adds to the you-are-there feeling rather than being distracting. The setting is appropriate. Harper's arrangements often have a spiritual feel that is amplified on this date by the 60-strong Szczecin Technical University Choir.
The interest continues because Harper, who composed and arranged all seven pieces on the DVD, uses the singers extensively, and they are clearly enjoying themselves. Even those wonderful Bach cantatas are better if you have a break once in awhile. But although the choir is a good one and stays in the spirit of the occasion, it won't be mistaken for one of the gospel-based mass choirs that would really shake the dust out of the rafters. A classically-trained choir just doesn't mesh all that well with Harper's combo. This type of mix is tough to pull off at best. Jan Gabarek's work with the Hilliard Ensemble is one of the few successes that come to mind, and that worked because Gabarek slid his style toward the Hilliard's.
Harper himself is in good form and dressed for the occasion in a long leather outfit that makes him look a little like a gentle Darth Vader--without the helmet. I love the way he gives a little can-you-believe-we're-doing-this grin to someone off camera near the beginning of the set. And the freeze frame at the end of the concert catches him in a joyous grin.
The leader has a majority of the solo time followed by Francesca Tanksley, his regular pianist. She plays forcefully, much like the pianists who played with Coltrane, Harper's most obvious influence. Guest Polish trumpeter Piotr Wojtasik has most of the remaining solo space, and he's outstanding. I was enough impressed that I'll be looking for Quest, an album he made with Harper several years ago. Bass and drums are largely in support mode, but those additional troops from Harper's regular rhythm section are clearly into the music. Drummer Newman Taylor Baker appears especially carried away.
The DVD packaging is disappointing. It doesn't include a printed insert, so you must go to the credits on the disc itself to find out, for example, whom some of the musicians are. Harper's biography is also only on the disc, as an extra. For no good reason a septet performance of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is also an "extra."
This is a good mix of Harper's compositions, his playing is strong and his sincerity obvious. The DVD probably won't win Billy Harper any new fans, but old ones will want it for sure.