It's been said so often that we've all come to believe it, at least a little bit. Jazz is dead. A moribund art form housed in an ivory cage, academia sponsored, and fellowship sustained. A "museum" art that despite occasional dusting serves only as a bridge to the hailer periods of yesteryear. Depending on who you're talking to, jazz has lost its audience, been diluted, or become either too backward looking or too avant-garde. I swear I once heard someone say it had become "diagonal". Be that as it may, if jazz is dead, there were a lot of very morbid spectators gathered at the Kennedy Center's Jazz Club last week to watch a loud, extraordinarily gifted, and very vibrant bunch of corpses perform an exceptionally life-affirming night of live music.
The dominant force behind the Winard Harper Sextet is, unsurprisingly, Winard Harper. A veteran performer born and raised in the greater D.C. area, Harper began his percussion training at the age of five and quickly attained virtuoso status. Honing his ever expanding technique on set, as well as a multitude of other percussive instruments including the rare balafon, Harper has performed with a litany of jazz greats including Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, and the inimitable Billy Taylor. But the show Harper was about to put on, though quite deliberately grounded in jazz tradition, had very little to do with the past. This was Harper's show. Harper's and the five other continuously surprising instrumentalists on stage, pianist Kelvin Sholar, bassist Ameen Saleem, saxophonist Brian Horton, trumpet showman Patrick Rickman, and percussionist Alioune Faye on Djembe and African talking drum.
Opening the night in trio form, Harper, Sholar, and Saleem began with a simple swing number characterized by Harper's crystal clear cymbal tone, deep, warm bass drum, and absolutely insistent groove. Building off of an energetic, old-school blues solo by Sholar, Harper ended the piece with a dramatic solo, expanding into ever more forceful and complex rhythmic patterns that drew the room into the rhythmic world owned by Winard Harper.
Segueing directly into the second piece of the night, a Rubin Brown composition titled "Float Like A Butterfly," the full sextet took the stage and quickly defined themselves as not only an impeccably timed machine, but also as a group dedicated to stylistic and genre blending innovation. Horton, Sholar, and Rickman alternated between their main instruments and various percussion items, while Harper and Faye contributed a frantic interplay of set work and African beats, transforming the band into an ecstatic, poly-rhythmic drum circle from another plane.
While this multi-cultural layering of styles, sounds, and rhythms epitomizes the Harper Septet's musical innovation, it was the evening's third piece, "Here's To Life", that most clearly expressed the band's spirit. This bittersweet, traditional jazz tune exemplifies the band's overtly positive, life-affirming, yet deeply felt musical commitment. Beginning the tune with a muted-trumpet solo, Rickman sounded a series of plaintive wails from the center of the undulating percussive bed created by Harper, Faye, and Saleem's subdued groove. Changing to soprano, Horton added his own mournful voice, and as the two blended, the lines transformed each other, subtly altering the mournful qualities into ones of mutual commiseration. As the piece progressed, this transformation continued as Sholar added a strong, confident voice on the piano, and Harper, aided by Faye, began to quicken the tempo and raise the dynamics. As each voice blended, and the piece built to a crescendo, the integrated whole developed into an affirmation of life's vitality which simultaneously acknowledged the painful elements that acted as the composition's source, and through incorporation, overcame them.
Dedicated equally to jazz as room-rocking entertainment, the band's next piece, "Moanin'" underscored the six musicians' versatility. Led by Rickman at his vaudevillian best, all six players took turns soloing, with Rickman and Sholar both putting on spectacular displays. Using a plunger mute, and referencing everything from Armstrong, to tongue-in-cheek quotes from pop tunes and nursery rhymes, Rickman countered the relative weight of the previous tune while displaying a gifted ability to explore the irreverent side of the blues tradition. Sholar, as well, turned-out a rhythmically refined solo steeped in jazz's earlier traditions, including everything from classic blues, to ragtime, to stride. This was one of the most impressive of the night's many impressive moments, and Sholar expertly distinguished himself as a piano voice to be carefully watched.
After a relatively straightforward take on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", the sextet closed the night with another cross-cultural exploration. Developing a Middle Eastern and West African centered tone, Harper began the piece on the Balafona Ghanaian mallet instrument similar to the xylophonewhile Faye provided the rhythmic base on hand drums. One by one, Rickman, Horton, Sholar, and Saleem added additional rhythmic layers using various shakers, building a polyrhythmic and texturally varied background for Harper's distinctive melodic statement. As the piece progressed, Rickman, Horton, and Sholar moved from percussion to their other instruments. Building voice by voice, the tune slowly took on new shapes until Harper finally transitioned to set and ignited the band with a deeply powerful funk groove of such energy one wondered if they could possibly sustain the intensity. But sustain it they did, each player building increasingly dynamic, far reaching solos. The night culminated, like an evening of fireworks, with a sustained display of percussive pyrotechnics by Harper so rapid fire, so mind-bogglingly dexterous, and so expressively diverse, as to be truly awe-inspiring.
Not only is Winard Harper one of the hardest working drummers in jazz today, he is also a formidable band leader backed by a group of talented young players. Each possesses their own voice, and each, under the expert guidance of Harper, are capable of synthesizing their disparate styles and personalities into a whole both unique and greater than the sum of its parts. In the end, just about the only thing as entertaining as a night of Winard Harper at the KC Jazz Club is, well, a night of Winard Harper somewhere else. Especially if you can catch him at a venue without the constraints of strictly timed-sets where Harper can fully let loose. Always a profound experience, catch Harper the next time he's in town, or if you are on the road, look for him on tour, and you will never be disappointed.
Visit Winard Harper on the web at www.winardharper.com .