Baritone saxophonists remain a comparatively rare breed. Even more rare are those souls who choose the cumbersome horn as their main medium of improvisatory expression. Detroit native Alex Harding is a card-carrying member of this rarified clique. He shares the ranks proudly with such peers as Bluiett and James Carter, all three of whom collaborate freely in the Baritone Saxophone Nation, a saxophone ensemble founded under Bluiett’s leadership.
Always mining the cusp of under-recognized talent CIMP offered the thirty-something saxophonist a debut shot as a leader on the strength of his work with Ahmed Abdullah’s NAM. Listening to the results of this thrilling freshman session the question immediately arises as to why other labels didn’t beat them to the punch? Harding comes out of the Pepper Adams lyceum of baritonology (rather than the Mulligan one). Maximizing the horn’s guttural and garrulous properties he massages a thick dollop of blues-infused oil under the ligature of its mouthpiece with carefully rationed breath. Never does it seem that he’s wrestling with the weight and magnitude of his heavy brass voice box. His stout breath lines flow freely tracing supple melodic contours or just as easily roaring gruffly through the moist ligneous fibers of his reed. Dahlgren and Weinstein make for quick-witted partners in this joyous enterprise supporting and goading in appropriate measure. On the opening “Harmology,” a bustling groove grounded number composed by Harding’s musical mentor Lucian Ban, and undulating backdrop of cymbals, toms and hard thrumming bass slide beneath soaring sky bound torrents launched from the leader’s full bore sax. Ban’s architectural touch also saturates “Chakra,” where the three converge again in a gradual, but no less passionate give and take. The bassist steals the show on “Blues for Oscar & Masa” wringing out tones both alkaline and organic from his harshly bowed strings as Harding blows laconic streams around him.
Weinstein takes a breather on the only standard of the date, the Strayhorn classic “Chelsea Bridge,” leaving Harding and Dahlgren to the daunting task of placing a personal stamp on tune previously the province of cyclopean giants like Webster, Hodges and Hawkins. They acquit themselves exceedingly well, putting a new saddle on the old workhorse and teaching it a few new tricks. CIMP’s unfettered sound even allows for the felt-lined patter of keys to be heard. The tune’s inclusion points once again to the breadth of Harding’s historical cognizance and the sets the stage for the closing spiritual. Harding’s instrument may have a diminished presence in the annals of recent jazz, but recordings like this one suggest that such a condition is more the result of unfortunate oversight than any deficiency on the part of the horn.
Personnel: Alex Harding- baritone saxophone; Chris Dahlgren- bass; Jimmy Weinstein- drums. Recorded: May 22 & 23, 2001, Rossie, NY.