Donald Harrison, Jr. Quartet in Denver
January 17, 2008
Genetics has a concept called "hybrid vigor," which means that you get much healthier and more vital offspring when the parents are not closely related. Basically, that's why you shouldn't marry your sister. Donald Harrison, Jr. is a master at marrying diverse musical varieties which, in turn, yields vigorous, even vivacious musical progeny. Thursday night at Dazzle, Harrison displayed the results of his musical breeding program to the delight of the capacity crowd.
He's even coined a term for one of his musical hybrids that mixes acoustic swing, R&B, a little hip hop, some funk and Mardi-Gras Indian music: Nouveau Swing, which served as the title of his 1997 Impulse! album and which the leader performed as a flagship piece on this Thursday night. He started the set with "Free to Be," the title track to his 1999 follow-up album further exploring the possibilities of extensive cross breeding. Another tune from Free to Be, "Cissy Strut," turned out to be the funkiest piece of the set.
Harrison was accompanied by his working piano trio whose average age is 19. In fact, with Harrison checking in at a comparatively geriatric 47, the band looked a little like My Three Sons with Harrison playing the part of Fred McMurray, only a little less avuncular and swapping the pipe for an alto sax. Actually, Harrison and the band were nattily attired in their suits and even neckties on the leader and the pianist. Harrison additionally sported a half mustache (the bottom half), giving him a sophisticated, urbane look.
Twenty-year-old Victor Gould on piano exhibited patience beyond his years in constructing his solos. He took his time and explored so much ground it sometimes sounded like he was improvising micro- symphonies with several different movements. Teenagers Max Moran on bass and drummer Joe Dyson consistently laid down a solid foundation while following Harrison on all his stylistic excursions. Harrison's playing is melodic and expressive. It's so easy on the ears one might be tempted to call it "smooth except for the pejorative connotations that word has in straight-ahead jazz circles. Maybe "wrinkle-free would be a better adjective. (Harrison has been known to dabble in smooth jazz and has released at least one CD in that genre.)
After playing the Nouveau Swing tunes, the band switched to a couple classics so, as Harrison stated, the youngsters in the band would learn an appreciation of their forbears in the music. They followed Miles Davis' "If I Were a Bell with Ellington's "Caravan, the latter without Harrison so the kids could romp on their own.
Harrison broke out his New Orleans Big Chief persona for the last two tunes, grabbing the microphone, going straight to Congo Square and getting the audience into a call and response, "Ooh, na, nay! Finally, he closed with another New Orleans classic, the well-known "Hey Pocky Way, a Neville Brothers/Funky Meters tune. At the end of the set, he explained that he was selling CDs to help rebuild New Orleans, "Specifically my house.