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The first jazz record I actually purchased was Wynton Marsalis' Think of One. It scared me and made me curious at the same time, because I had never heard anything like that before.
In an effort to find the "next big thing" record labels often rush musicians and singers to market before they have had an opportunity to develop a unique voice. This is particularly true in jazz vocals as the never-ending quest for the next Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald more often than not leaves an overwhelmingly disappointed and increasingly cynical audience. If you have ever fallen into this trap, be assured that it won't happen with the RHM Entertainment release of The Essence of Roderick Harper.
On this disc of eleven tracks, one can hear the influences of vocalists past like Betty Carter and Jon Hendricks, but the distinguishing qualities of Harper's voice result in a fresh look at some old and new standards. Standards, by their very nature lend themselves to safe interpretations. However, Harper and producer Nicholas Payton, avoid this trap by creating fresh arrangements that compliment the nuances of Harper's voice. These are the songs that brought many listeners to jazz and with anything more than a cursory listen, can bring many back to the music, but more about that later. Roderick Harper began developing his voice at an early age, singing almost as long as he has been talking. While taking an interest in violin, trombone, guitar and the clarinet, it was the purchase of his first jazz record that got him hooked on the music that would become his life's work. "The first jazz record I actually purchased was Wynton Marsalis' Think of One," Harper recalled in a recent interview. "It scared me and made me curious at the same time, because I had never heard anything like that before. The record caused me to take a second look and listen to my father's record collection. I was hooked!"
His first formal jazz training came at the hands of Sarah Vaughn's accompanist, John Malachai. From there, attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana led to a stint in that University's fabled jazz ensemble, headed by the legendary jazz clarinetist, Alvin Batiste. "I learned so much during my time performing in the Jazz Ensemble!" Classical vocal training and performances with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Ellis Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Betty Carter among others, have provided Harper with a first-class musical education the old-school way, on stage.
At first glance, the track listing on The Essence of Roderick Harper might create a bit of apprehension for the listener. Frequently worked selections taken from the great American pop songbook are the order of the day. However, the opening salvo of Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me" serves to remove any further apprehension. With Nicholas Payton on trumpet, piano, drums and bass (that's right!), Harper subtlety swings through the branches of Payton's refreshing arrangement of this old favorite.
Harper swings effortlessly throughout this recording -from the up-tempo rhythms of "The Lamp is Low" to the complex changes of Ivan Lins' "Love Dance." His is a voice that discovers the differences in selections that are familiar and in the hands of others, often tired. One example, Rodgers and Hart's Where or When is given a different feel and pacing than most other incarnations of this favorite among vocalists. Part of the credit must be given to Payton's arrangements, but the combination of Harper's easy-style and Payton's approach to tempo and measure create a unique musical experience. Everything on this disc works, even Sade's "Love is Stronger Than Pride" is given a new and challenging look.
Two tracks deserve special mention. Bill Evan's classic, "Waltz for Debbie" is performed with the seldom-heard lyrics penned by the composer for his daughter. Joining Harper is Leandro Lopez "Verde" on piano, Michael Cook on drums and Ben Willis on bass for an interpretation of this Evan's classic that seemingly captures the true childlike spirit of this composition. Harper also brings to life the John Coltrane masterpiece, "Naima" through a beautiful performance of Jon Hendricks' lyrics. Backed by the same rhythm section, this selection is truly spiritual in its feel.
Roderick Harper has worked at his craft and presents a very compelling argument for a bright future based on this his second recording. For those of you who have been burned before, go ahead and take a chance on Harper. You won't be disappointed.
Until next time, see you 'Round About New Orleans.