Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

Photo by Kiel Scott
Photo by Kiel Scott
11/20/2017

Donald Harrison: The Big Chief plays at Jack London Revue 11/19/2017

By Michael Shoehorn Conley// The Portland saxophone player listens and reacts to the New Orleans sax master.

Jack London Revue was packed when I arrived. I had deliberately skipped the opening act, wanting to get something so distinct fresh in my ears.  I soon ran into some musician friends and settled in. I had first heard of Donald Harrison decades ago from reading Downbeat, and was intrigued by his self-portrayal on the HBO series Treme, where he was presented as a cat who could play "modern" and also stomp the "2nd line" funky street jazz which is arguably the basis for the second wave of popular music that emanated from the Crescent City- rock & roll.

The show was notable for the variety of styles the band was able to pivot between, with Harrison's tone and articulation as varied as the tempos and grooves. As a saxophonist myself, I had to look twice to see whether he had separate mics for the funky tunes and the straight-ahead stuff. It was almost like he had different EQ settings for the various styles.

After some introductory remarks, Harrison opened with a funky/fusion original titled "Castle of the Headhunters" that had several distinct sections and a driving beat; the saxophonist unleashing squalling flurries of notes once he got into it. He followed with the bebop staple "Groovin' High" by Dizzy Gillespie, including the intro and other arranging touches from the original recording with Charlie Parker.

Next was a blazing "Cherokee", which Harrison prefaced with an explanation to the effect that it is very fast, and very hard, and that they wanted to establish their bona fides in the speed chops department, and "once we do this we will not play this fast again- because its hard"! The piano player ripped on this and there was a cool "shout chorus" which gave the drummer some awesome fills at approximately 300 bpm.

What came next was Bechet's arrangement of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag", which was as stunning and exquisite in execution as it was familiar to students of jazz history and old-school rags- with the essential breaks in the rhythm for the soloists to fill. The whole rhythm section was excellent on this tune, and keyboardist Zaccai Curtis got to throw down some fine left hand power strokes, old-school- with the leader's timbre and tonguing again folded into the style with flawless aplomb. 

 The journey continued to reflect the "Spanish Tinge", wherein pianist Curtis performed a florid intro with enough hints of rock-hard rhythm to engage everyone's interest. Once the tune was fully underway, the young drummer, aged 22, gave ample testimony to the efficacy of a standard drum set in laying down a hot Latin Jazz groove without traditional percussion. The descarga over the montuno vamp at the end gave Harrison another opportunity to exhibit his powerful rhythm chops and emotive fire from the altissimo range of the alto saxophone.  I did not catch the title of the Latin number.

 Closing the first set with a vocal on the New Orleans favorite, "Iko Iko", Harrison casually assumed his mantle of "Big Chief" which he apparently inherited from his father in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The audience was invited to sing along during this bit.

 On each of these tunes, so stylistically distinct, the band was on fire. Curtis's piano solos were technically impressive and grooved relentlessly, and the drummer had plenty to say without obvious solos, feeding off of Harrison and locked in with his partner in the bass chair, who skillfully alternated between acoustic and electric instruments.

 The second set started with an impromptu blues in F, with Harrison vocally channeling the late Clark Terry, "mumbling" the licks and singing a low-key, humorous lyric about a whisky-loving female. The band here chipped in behind the leader with an understated, old-school feel, and impressed us again with the depth of their command of yet another stylistic bag.

 Harrison announced they would do some "soul music" next, proceeding with a medley of originals that would not have been out of place in a set by the late Grover Washington. Again, Harrison adjusted his tone and attack  to the stylistic parameters and somehow sounded different while maintaining his identity on the horn.

 They did Roberta Flack's 70s hit "Feel Like Makin' Love" with an interpretive panache that did not distract the audience from chiming in on the chorus. The final number was also a vocal on another Mardi Gras favorite- " Hey Poky Way", and the crowd ate it up. Donald Harrison and his band masterfully held the audience in rapt attention with a satisfying mix of hard-core jazz chops and rollicking good-time party tunes.

 

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Comments

Elizabeth

Excellent review and so well written....you really took us there. You really have such a great understanding of the music and history.

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