On a Friday in mid-February, for about three hours, instead of the insufferable wind chills of, usually, 10 above zero, it was 90 degrees in Chicago. The heat was emanating from a performance at Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom. The performance was labeled an evening of Mardi Gras music from New Orleans with Dr. John headlining and guest artist Donald Harrison and his Electric Band. It’s true, Dr. John, the Gris-Gris pianist from N’awlins, was headlining and his quartet played some tough New Orleans jams, plus his standards ("Right Place, Wrong Time", "Walk on Gilded Splinters", etc.), but the fire got started with the alto saxophone of Jazz Messenger alumnus Harrison. Harrison of late has been re-dabbling, if you will, in a smooth jazz vein, something like his early 90’s release The Power of Cool. With his work on trumpeter Christian Scott’s ’06 release, Rewind That,(see review by Cheryl Symister-Masterson at link to Jazz Review.com) and his own release, 3D-Vol. 1, Harrison is re-establishing his funk and R&B roots, while retaining his satiny tone and lyrical playing. It is sort of miss-leading to label this music smooth jazz, which always carries a connotation of music without much depth. When artists such as Harrison, with his much storied collaborations with Terence Blanchard, Ron Carter, Roy Haynes, and Eddie Palmieri, decide to play this music, they come with many influences and experiences to legitimize their take on it, as if it really needed that. What ends up happening, as was the case with Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock and others, is that they take a thin form and make it richer and, in Harrison’s case, much funkier.
The audience at the Pier was ready to hear the good Dr. John, but when they got a listen to the grooves that Harrison’s Electric Band laid down, grooves that were spiced with, not only funk, but New Orleans street chants, Native American dance, and classic R & B jamming, they really responded by standing and dancing in the aisles. The energetic sound was produced by the veteran saxophonist ably assisted by some young guns, some of whom were barely out of high school, but displayed extraordinary chops. Starting with the rhythm section-average age 17 years-drummer Joe Dyson, Conun Pappas on piano and keyboards, and Max Moran on bass, with contributions from Darius Harrison on laptop, percussion, and mixer, the group amazed with its capability in the different musical styles presented. The old heads in the group older by just a few years- of course represented well with John Bagnado on guitar and Shaka Zulu on vocals, percussion, and in one segment, costumed Indian dancing. Lead by a vocalizing Harrison who was dancing as if in the French Quarter, Zulu pranced and played through a crowd that had formed in front of the stage of the ballroom. There were a few costumed people in the crowd as well, giving the whole scene a joyous Fat Tuesday feel.
Following that wonderful warm-up, since they were now decidedly transported to the Big Easy, the crowd comfortably settled into the laid-back grooves of Dr. John. Saxophonist Harrison re-joined the group to play some original tunes and music from his collaboration with the Dr. from 2003, Harrison’s album entitled Indian Blues.
This show, which was part of the Winter’s Delight series presented at Navy Pier and other downtown Chicago venues, was one of the years’ best up to that point. For more information about upcoming events, such as the Chicago Jazz Festival, contact the Mayor’s Office of Special Events at 312-744-3315, or the Jazz Institute of Chicago at www.jazzinchicago.org.