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Donald Harrison, Ron Carter & Billy Cobham Trio: New York, NY, January 8, 2013

Dan Bilawsky By

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Donald Harrison, Ron Carter & Billy Cobham Trio
Blue Note
New York, NY
January 8, 2013

All-Star groupings are often dreamed up by promoters looking to capitalize on one-off, big name combinations that never really have the opportunity to gel; that's not the case with saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham's trio. A New Orleans modernist who comes from the university of drummer Art Blakey, jazz's preeminent acoustic bassist and a fusion kingpin may seem like an odd fit on paper, but paper doesn't play jazz, people do.

These three highly regarded leaders have been coming together for years, using New York's Blue Note as their home base for recording albums like New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note (Half Note, 2005) and This Is Jazz (Half Note, 2011). Returning to the scene of the crime for a few nights at the dawn of 2013, the trio's first set of its opening night leaned heavily on material from This Is Jazz, but it was hardly more of the same. These three men don't simply run tunes; they explore the cracks and crevices of each musical edifice to the nth degree.

The night opened with some extemporized exploration that quickly led to trumpet legend Miles Davis' famed "So What." All three painted concentric circles around one another as they calibrated their playing to the specifications of this grouping. Carter's strong pocket eventually locked things in as Cobham dropped bombs aplenty. Groove play ensued as flirtations with a double time feel and a Latin sub-floor came and went. Carter garnered a few smiles and nods of approval from the audience as he brilliantly weaved in a fleeting reference to Davis' "All Blues" as the song came to an end. The bassist's "Cut & Paste" came next, with a choppy melodic opening and a unique drum solo with some brief bass rejoinders. Cobham even went sans sticks at one point, literally snapping into his drums and turning his snare drum into a hand drum.

While Harrison could often be found in probing mode, exploring the great unknown in extraordinary fashion, he came back to a central melodic avenue with "I Can't Get Started." He seduced the crowd with his beauteous horn work and all three men created a great triangle of conversation with this oft-performed classic. At this point in the set, Harrison literally stepped out of the spotlight to take a seat, leaving Carter as the focal point. Carter delivered one of his famed solo renditions of "You Are My Sunshine," which shone a light on his technical savvy, creativity and wit. Harmonics, bent notes, false endings, fake-outs and a brief detour into the "Prelude," from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1," were all part of this captivating solo.

As the set neared its end, Harrison and Cobham came back into the picture and joined their bass playing compatriot for a high energy take on "Seven Steps To Heaven." Hearing two alumni of the Miles Davis school of jazz and one of the most creative saxophonists in the business rip through this Davis classic was a real treat and the crowd responded enthusiastically. At one point, Carter and Cobham dropped out of sight, leaving Harrison to his own devices. His tour de force solo, which built to fever pitch, proved to be the highlight of the whole evening.

The idea of the leader-full/leaderless trio in jazz often has a negative connotation, but these three men prove that it can work if all parties are fully invested in the music, relationship and long-term growth of the group.

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