Great Friends, originally released in France in 1986, is a reissue of the only studio recording made by a star-studded quintet that performed briefly in the ‘80s: Sonny Fortune (alto sax), Billy Harper (tenor sax), Stanley Cowell (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), and session leader Billy Hart (drums). The album was recorded right after a tour, while the collective groove was still strong, and the result is exemplary.
"Cal Massey," with Cowell's deft keyboard dancing, leads off the disc. The elaborately titled "Is It Not True Simply Because You Cannot Believe It?" has a Middle Eastern tinge, not unlike "Caravan," and Harper's rich opening solo clears a path for the band to follow. In the middle of the tune "Thoughts", after crisp turns by Cowell and Harper, the beat is suspended, like the broken record effect on "Take Five," with Hart briskly filling the space.
"Equipoise" features lovely call and response work by Harper and Fortune on the theme, and a passionate plucked solo by Workman, with Hart and Cowell murmuring in the background. "Synapse" is an almost symphonic number with deep free jazz roots. "East Harlem Nostalgia," a Latin-flavored swing with difficult and tricky chord changes finds Harper and Workman each building thoughtful, exuberant solos. "Insight" showcases the reedman trading off furiously, like two people amicably but passionately debating until they finally reach an understanding. Closing the disc, "Awakening" features a beautiful a capella opening by Fortune, who sounds like a songbird warbling at daybreak.
There are no belabored points on Great Friends. Each member of the band except for Hart composed these excellent songs. Their familiarity with the material and tremendous talent account for the tight arrangements and overall fluency. After being sequestered abroad for so long, it's about time this recording was brought home.