Billy Harper charges up Church Of Sound

A house of praise is the perfect setting for one of the key curtain raisers of this year's EFG London Jazz Festival. The spiritual resonance of Billy Harper's music has captured the imagination of many audiences since his debut in the early 1970s, so his arrival at St. James', lower Clapton, east London, aka Church Of Sound, with its short pews framing an open but compact stage area, is something of a dream scenario. He is joined by a British band comprising players several decades his junior – pianist Robert Mitchell, trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, double bassist Tym Dylan and drummer Moses Boyd – but the 75-year-old Texan cuts an eyebrow-raising dash as he enters.

The tenor saxophonist is wearing the distinctive black leather tunic, giving him the allure of a medieval warrior, which graced classic albums such as Trying To Make Heaven My Home, and he launches straight into music from that period that has considerable significance to this day. Harper, last seen in Britain as part of Messengers-like supergroup The Cookers, found a way of taking the gospel-infused hard bop vocabulary of the likes of Art Blakey and Lee Morgan, both of whom he played with in his formative years, and imbuing it with another modernist dimension. A highlight from the first set such as 'Believe For It Is True', is a perfect example of his aesthetic. A leisurely vamp on one chord is embellished by slides on the bass and purrs of cymbals over which a stinging, stabbing theme is punched out to suggest another tempo. The melody has a choppy, fiery intonation that induces tension amid the rhythmic gentility, thus building a very astute bridge between soul and avant-garde sensibilities that explains much of Harper's musical appeal, which is really emotionally charged communication that nonetheless has a cutting edge. Compositions juxtapose not just light and dark, but softness and spikiness, that, given Harper's frequent use of biblical-based titles, might evoke man's inhumanity to man as well as declarations of faith in the Lord. These are contemporary hymns that appear to question as much as they uplift. They suit a world of strife.

BillyHarperLJF2018 MG 9358

Harper's sound and improvisatory skill reinforce this; powerful, full-bodied tone with a needle-like articulation free of any vibrato, so that the stark, flinty character of the horn underlines the immense gravitas of the compositions. When Mitchell takes an intro with daringly lengthy pauses between chords, to which Boyd and Dylan have to respond manfully in sonic hide and seek, another aspect of Harper's craft is revealed – the alternation of lento and presto phrasing to enhance drama rather than melodrama. Each player, particularly Mitchell, is up to the task. His solos also have an incendiary energy that plays well off the leader's.

In the second set the 12-piece Khoros Choir arrives to perform parts of Capra Black, Harper's timeless debut, and the soaring quality of the music played by the quintet is made more explicit. For a largely young audience this is a precious moment, as it is possibly the closest millennial ears might come to experiencing something of the force of what John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were doing in the 1960s. It is uncompromising music predicated on devotion and healing that Harper has spent his life extending and personalizing, enriching traditions from within rather than without. 'Priestess', proves a fitting closer. Written when Harper was a member of one of Gil Evans' best orchestras, the song is a majestic ode that has become the saxophonist's enduring signature tune, if not a standard that wasn't born on Broadway.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Roger Thomas

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