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Donald Harrison: Free To Be

Robert Spencer By

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Donald "Duck" Harrison is an alto saxophonist of confidence and power, as this bold and enjoyable set abundantly attests. The first two tracks, "Free to Be" and "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" place his instrument's lyrical cry in a driving, straightforward setting, in which Harrison charges through the changes with complete authority. On these tracks he's backed by pianist Andrew Adair, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer John Lamkin, all of whom are fine. Adair has a taste for Tynerisms, which are perhaps unavoidable when you're cooking with this much grease.

"Cissy Strut," the third track, has Vincente Archer replacing Rogers. Here Harrison soars a bit away from the rhythm section on one occasion, breaking the uniformly up-tempo and energetic feel of the disc up to that point. When the groove is reestablished it's all the more effective, and carries over into the buoyant take of Duke Ellington's "Blue Rose," where Harrison is backed by Mulgrew Miller (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Carl Allen (drums). No surprises or undue pyrotechnics from these giants (although Miller's solo is particularly eloquent) - just solid-as-a-rock comping. This rhythm sections also drives through Harrison's "Duck Steps," which has a very similar feel.

"Again, Never" is a Bill Lee tune from his son Spike's movie Mo' Better Blues, for which Harrison trained Wesley Snipes to look like a saxophonist. Trumpeter Brian Lynch joins Harrison and the Miller crew for the disc's first ballad - and effectively captures the yearning-midnight feel of the piece. Harrison's solo here is particularly carefully and well built, moving quickly from short motives into longer ones. Tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery guests with Miller and co. on "Indian Blues" and contributes a snappy, hee-hawing, seesawing solo.

"Mr. Cool Breeze" takes us to cool funk land, courtesy guitarist Rodney Jones, percussionist José Claussell, and the Adair/Rogers/Lamkin rhythm team. It's a nice enough track, but this format seems to give Harrison less room to stretch out. The bossaish "Smooth Sailing," with the same group and Harrison on soprano, crosses even further into smooth jazz FM territory; Harrison sounds competent but anonymous. But the disc's momentum gets rolling again with the marvelous "Slowvisor," featuring Eddie Palmieri on piano playing his own Monkish composition, inspiring Harrison to whirling and quirkily lyrical heights. Lynch, McBride, Allen, and Claussell turn in strong supporting performances.

"Nouveau Swing (Reprise)" is just that: nouveau swing. Harrison raps/sings gamely, recalling Earth, Wind and Fire in the kind and quality of the lyric, but with a sweeter, jazzier voice. Adair, Rogers, and Lamkin help him close out the album with "Feelin' Jazzy, Baby," another of the bright tunes he executes so well all through this overall fine album.

Title: Free To Be | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: West Wind

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