Good things sometimes fly under the radar; sometimes they are great things. This has never been more the case than with Royal Hartigans's Blood Drum Spirit, a jazz masterpiece that has languished in obscurity since its 1993 recording to its eventual 2004 release.
It remains largely unrecognized six years later. Jazz, especially in the US, can be almost religiously hierarchical and introducing an unknown quantity to the ranks of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Anthony Braxton may well be viewed as profane or pretentious. However, the benefit to fans of good music outweighs the potential backlash. This qualifies as a classic desert island, end of the world as we know it, entry.
Hartigan is jazz Renaissance man. An author, educator, and student/teacher of world music, he has incorporated the sounds, native instruments, and cultural nuances of West Africa and Southeast Asia into a two-disc collection where the emphasis is strongly toward jazz rather than the world music that subtly influences it. Like Collin Walcott's earlier efforts, Cloud Dance (ECM, 1976) and Grazing Dreams (ECM, 1977), Hartigan has found that elusive ground that emphasizes the pure innovative nature of jazz without excluding the unique attributes of the cultures Hartigan has closely studied and been influenced by. Some time back, Esbjorn Svensson Trio was dubbed the "future of jazz." Had Royal Haritgan been known at that time, he may have deservedly shared the mantle.
If Blood Drum Spirit has a centerpiece, it is "Eve," a 28-plus minute epic composed of solo, duo, trio, and quartet formats that easily flow into and out of each phase. Suffice to say, "Eve" is worth the price of admission. In many ways it represents the democratic nature of Hartigan's collective style and world philosophy. Guitarist Kevin McNeal's deceptively simple chords and David Bindman's opening saxophone sets a bluesy pace that carries throughout. By the time Wes Brown's bass and Hartigan's kit transition into a rhythmic African extended duo, a hypnotic effect has established itself and it is not easily broken. Hartigan's percussion work is as musical, or more so, than most of the percussion greats who have gone before him. His versatility could be imagined as a solo percussion work, much the way the Art Ensemble Of Chicago's drummer Famoudou Don Moye is.
To single out tracks is counter-productive here; this is a work of symphonic structure. Hartigan's quartet exerts equal effort and finesse across the spectrum of tunes here and selectivity would be nitpicking as the work that builds and develops across the entire program. Each band member is given more than ample opportunity to solo and in every case they are stellar performances. Why Royal Hartigan is unfamiliar to many jazz fans is a subject for another debate. What is clear is that Blood Drum Spirit is a collection that will endure for many years to come.
Blood Drum Spirit; Wadsworth Falls; Dagomba; Pilipinas Suite; Solog; Pilipinas; Solog; Caravan; Tala Vadyam; Apartheid Usa Suite; Adzohu; Juba Handclaps; Rodney King Drums; Double Trouble; Adzohu
Rodney King Drums; Double Trouble; Navajo Blood/Pontoosuc Waters/Springside Lands; Tie Me Sufre (Teah May Sufray); Papago-Saguaro Song; Eve (Eh Vay).
David Bindman: woodwinds; Kevin McNeal: guitar; Wes Brown: bass; Royal Hartigan: drums, cymbals, and rattles.
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