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Mike Clark, Billy Harper, Donald Bailey: Blueprints of Jazz

Woodrow Wilkins BY

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Three discs, three creative artists, one concept—Blueprints of Jazz presents some of jazz music's eminently worthy but less widely known innovators. Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper and drummers Mike Clark and Donald Bailey have been fixtures on the jazz scene from 1950s through the 1970s, and they still produce fresh sounds.

Mike Clark
Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 1
Talking House Records

Mike Clark is probably best known for his work with keyboard player Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. Though he has played fusion and funk, jazz is his first love.

Clark's six-piece ensemble is about as good as it gets. His supporting cast includes pianist Patrice Rushen and bassist Christian McBride. Seven of the 10 tracks were written by members of the ensemble.

"In the House" is an excellent start to the album, and to the series. Rushen gets things started with a scorching lead, and saxophonists Donald Harrison on alto and Jed Levy on tenor get their shots in. McBride lays down a cool bass groove, and Clark torches the snare, cymbals and toms, deftly slipping in some effective rim shots during an extended solo.

Trumpeter Christian Scott joins for "Like That." While the rest of the cast delivers more of the same passion and energy displayed on "In the House," Scott adds some fiery brass. While this is mostly new music, it has that old-school feel of jazz, like it was during those crucial decades.

Billy Harper
Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2
Talking House Records

Billy Harper spent part of the 1960s with some of the great bandleaders of the period, including pianist/arranger Gil Evans, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. His supporting cast on Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2 includes Francesca Tanksley on piano and Keyon Harrold on trumpet and French horn. Eight of the nine songs are Harper originals.

"Africa Revisited" is a bit challenging, musically. It's a largely free-form piece with no discernible melody. It's beauty lies in the spoken word content, subtitled "Where Dat Stuff Come From? Part 1," written and voiced by Amiri Baraka. With the instruments providing the backdrop, Baraka weaves together the story of how American jazz evolved from African music and quotes from classic jazz songs, such as "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Several instrumental solos highlight this epic. Though the song is long at more than 16 minutes, it never stalls.

The second part of Baraka's tale comes through in "Knowledge of Self." The instrumental lead is a bit more melodic than on the first part, but the vocal story continues Baraka's history lesson. Part of the message identifies racial bigotry behind the use of the word "jazz" to classify the music. It's easy to get lost in the verbal message and forget there's music going on the background. Harper, Tanksley and the others do quite a bit of stretching out.

"Another Kind of Thoroughbred" is an all-instrumental track that features Harrold and alto saxophonist Charles McNeal. Clarence Seay and Louie Spears share the duties on bass.

Donald Bailey
Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 3
Talking House Records

Donald Bailey spent nine years drumming with seminal organist Jimmy Smith. With a supporting cast that includes Odean Pope on tenor sax and Charles Tolliver on trumpet, Bailey completes the Blueprints trilogy. Six of the nine tracks were written by members of the ensemble.

Pope sets the stage early with "Plant Life," another high-energy tune. Pianist George Burton scores with a solo.

"Blues It" demonstrates the richness of the tenor sax. This groove features Pope in the lead, but also gives Bailey, Burton and bassist Tyrone Brown plenty of room.

The tranquil "Blue Gardenia" closes out the series. Bailey plays harmonica, a fitting tribute to an instrument that is a key component of the blues, which, of course, has a shared history with jazz.

Tracks and Personnel

Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 1

Tracks: In the House; Like That; 10th Ave. 1957; Past Lives; Thanks Len; Loft Funk; Clark Kent; Conchita's Dance; Morning Became Electra; I Want to Talk About You.

Personnel: Mike Clark: drums; Christian McBride: bass; Patrice Rushen: piano; Christian Scott: trumpet; Donald Harrison: alto sax; Jed Levy: tenor sax.

Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2

Tracks: Africa Revisited; Knowledge of Self; Another Kind of Thoroughbred; Thoughts and Slow Actions; Time and Time Again; Who Here Can Judge Our Fates?; Amazing Grace; Cast the First Stone? (...If You Yourself Have No Sins); Oh...If Only.

Personnel: Billy Harper: tenor sax, vocal; Amiri Baraka: spoken word; Francesca Tanksley: piano; Aaron Scott: drums, percussion; Keyon Harrold: trumpet, French horn; Charles McNeal: alto sax; Clarence Seay: bass; Louie Spears: bass.

Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 3

Tracks: Plant Life; Blues It; Gone Now; Variations; Fifth House; For All We Know; Family Portrait; USO/Trilogy; Blue Gardenia.

Personnel: Donald Bailey: drums, harmonica; Odean Pope: tenor sax; Tyrone Brown: bass; George Burton: piano; Charles Tolliver: trumpet.

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