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JazzFest Denver 2008: Winard Harper and Sean Jones

Geoff Anderson By

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Winard Harper Sextet/Sean Jones Group
JazzFest Denver, Denver Center for the Performing Arts
Denver, Colorado
March 8, 2008


JazzFest Denver 2008 was a two-night affair with four acts per night. Because I continually fail in my perpetual quest to "do it all," the following account is necessarily limited to the two bands featured the second night.

As the show opener, Winard Harper is drummer, band leader and, if his on-stage persona is indicative of his real personality, a pretty happy guy. His enthusiasm showed in both his playing and his stage banter, but also in his flamboyant, unique drumming style. About half the time he looks like he's about ready to fall off his stool because of all the body English. His arms don't reflect an economy of movement; or maybe they do. It's just an unusual, at once graceful and highly dramatic style, as much fun to watch as to listen to.

As you'd expect of a band leader with impressive credentials and abundant talent, Harper has surrounded himself with top flight players. A real standout is the newest member of the band, Jon Notar on piano. He had a chance to play several solos, and each was exciting, inventive and blues-saturated. Alioune Faye, from Senegal, brought his own form of visual interest to the group, playing a variety of unusual African percussion instruments that were attention-getting in themselves. But the verve which he applied to the various drums added an extra layer of excitement.

The band began and ended with Ellington tunes, inserting a couple of additional jazz standards among band originals and lesser known tunes. Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" was a highlight, with the band catching a bluesy back-beat and swinging hard. The second-to-last piece of the set featured Harper on the Balaphon, an African version of a marimba. He played part of the piece as a duet with Faye on African talking drum, a combination yielding some of the most arresting and inventive sounds of the evening.

Whereas the Winard Harper Sextet is a viscerally swinging unit, the Sean Jones group is more cerebral, more straight ahead bebop. Of the four horn players heard Saturday night, Jones was by far the best, playing, moreover, with the unmistakable passion. He could visit the high register and maintain control, conveying anguish, poignancy, joy, soulfulness and grace—all with a full but not piercing trumpet tone. A complete musician, he has both the chops and the good judgement to know when to put the hammer down and when to let up. And he's not yet 30.

Of course, Jones brought along another crackerjack band. Again, the piano playing was a highlight, though Zachi Curtis displayed a significantly different style than Notar in Harper's band. Curtis seems to be more a disciple of intense, modal players like McCoy Tyner, with a perpetual flow of chords from the left hand while the right continually invented new melodies. Ali Jackson on the drums was much more subdued than Harper—at least visually. His playing, however, was equally expressive as he and bassist Ben Williams lay down a rock-solid, steady bebop groove.

Jones made a plea for universal peace and understanding both verbally and with his playing. Songs like "Divine Inspiration" and "BJ's Tune" were sometimes introspective, most times beautiful. And, as if to assure that everybody present would leave knowing that the cats can play, the band ended the set and the night with a lick-trading frenzy reminiscent of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie going after one another with gloves off.


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