They say context is everything, and nobody knows that better than alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, who recorded Free Style literally back-to-back with his last Nagel Heyer release, Heroes , featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham. While both sessions are trio dateswith the exception of three tracks featuring pianist Glen Patschaone couldn't find two more diametrically opposed records. And yet, strangely enough, Harrison's distinctively meticulous style links both sessions. While the inclusion of two tunes from the Free Style session as bonus tracks on Heroes did little to recommend bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lamkin, when heard more fully on Free Style they make more sense, and their more rigid rhythmical context is not the deficiency it appeared to be.
Purists will no doubt have ruffled feathers over hearing Harrison, better-known in the post bop context of Terence Blanchard and Art Blakey, dabbling with hip hop rhythms, funk and soul grooves. Archer and Lamkin are not the elastic players that Carter and Cobham are, nor are they trying to be. Instead, Free Style is about a different kind of swing; not the traditional style that Harrison fans have come to expect over the course of his career, but rather a more contemporary version that is no less compelling.
The title track mines a deep hip hop groove, with Harrison's behind-the-beat playing making him an interesting counterbalance to Greg Osby, the other contemporary alto player making great waves on his instrument. "New Hope" has a more soulful rhythm, whereas Harrison's take on Miles Davis' "So What" combines a Latin element with a distinct hip hop swing. Lamkin is, in fact, a great backbeat drummer, and Archer has a deep and robust sound that goes straight for the gut. Less about three-way interplay and more about creating a firm backbone for Harrison and, on three tracks, Patscha, Archer and Lamkin may not exhibit the same flexible time sense as Carter and Cobham on Heroes , but that's really not what they're about.
The aptly-titled "Rock Song" features a, well, rock rhythm that could come just as easily from Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But Harrison's retention of an all-acoustic context prevents things from getting completely out of hand or losing its organic nature, making this record just another link in a long chain that shows Harrison to be an artist whose reach is broader than, perhaps, some people might like. Monk's "Well You Needn't" features a dark groove, while "Free to Be" is an R&B-inflected piece with a joyful rhythm straight out of James Brown.
As strong as the two Carter/Cobham bonus tracks are, they act more as an advertisement for Heroes than making truly logical contextual sense. Keeping both records separate might have been a wiser idea. Still, with a player as inventive as Harrison it really doesn't matter. For a full picture of Harrison's diverse capabilities, listeners could do far worse than checking out both Heroes and Free Style.
Track Listing: Hand Jive; Free Style; New Hope; Get Your Swerve; So What; Rock Song; Well You Needn't; Iko Iko; Free to Be; Heroes; Candlelight
Personnel: Donald Harrison (alto saxophone), Glen Patscha (piano on "Hand Jive," "New Hope," "So What"), Vicente Archer (bass), John Lamkin (drums) on bonus tracks, "Heroes" and "Candlelight": Ron Carter (bass), Billy Cobham (drums)