Ain’t No Party Like a VJC Party
By Chris Lenois
Chris Lenois is a freelance writer and former jazz show host for WWOZ-FM in New Orleans. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Moments before Donald Harrison, Jr. kicked off the 2012-13 Vermont Jazz Center concert season, the crowd was buzzing with curiosity. What kind of program were we going to hear from an altoist who has worked with jazz legends and hip-hop innovators alike, while also carrying forward the musical and cultural traditions of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tribes? Was NOLA expatriate-turned-Brattleboro-resident, Samirah Evans, going to sit-in? Why are there congas on stage but no saxophone?
Meanwhile, Harrison had sauntered through the same door as paying members of the audience and plopped down in a back-row chair; his horn still in its decal-adorned hard case. Soon, the other members of his band were milling around him, nattily clad in suits of similar dark hues. Anyone who noticed them didn’t have much time to absorb the details, though, as artistic director Eugene Uman drew everyone’s attention to the stage for his official opening-of-the-season greeting and artist introduction.
Houselights dimmed and applause resounded while the quintet made their way to the bandstand. Harrison’s horn, now fully assembled and attached for action, gleamed in the stage lights as the group locked into the soul jazz groove of “Free To Be,” the title cut from his 1999 Impulse release and a manifesto of sorts for Harrison. People familiar with his catalog have heard the eclectic directions Harrison likes to go with his compositions and arrangements of standards. These are the same people who also grin knowingly during Harrison’s occasional appearances as himself on the HBO series, Treme, for which he has also acted as musical consultant. His conversations with the character Delmond Lambreaux — a modern jazz trumpeter whose father is a Big Chief — are externalizations of the musical monologue Harrison has been delivering to his listeners for close to three decades.
The cliche metaphor for Harrison’s approach would be musical gumbo; but along with his ambitious effort to take what he likes best from existing musical genres and create something fresh, Harrison has also coined his own term for what he does, calling it Nouveau Swing. “Free To Be” is a terrific example. Harrison ran Charlie Parker-esque lines up and down his alto over a bass lick lifted from James Brown; only to be interrupted by drummer Joe Dyson, whose heavy cymbal crashes signaled a shift in style that brought the group dangerously close to the outer edges of hard-bop. Harrison soloed first followed by pianist Zaccai Curtis, who went through the same form before Dyson took his own rambunctious solo while Curtis overlapped simple, funky lines in tandem with guitarist Detroit Brooks and bassist Max Moran. After the close of the number, Harrison provided a deconstruction of its sources, cueing each instrumentalist for their part before saying simply, “It sounds right to me.”
Harrison picked tried-and-true staples from the jazz oeuvre for his next two numbers. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” began with an Duke Ellington-style roll-up by the rhythm section (whose combined ages don’t equal 75, by the way). Harrison took three full choruses, swinging harder each time through. Detroit Brooks, whose own family history rivals Harrison’s in the annals of New Orleans music, followed with two choruses of guitar playing so sparkling clean you could hear the resonance of every string in the chords he formed.
Then it was onto “Cherokee,” which Harrison introduced as a song Nat Adderley used to tell audiences, “we play fast to show you that we can.” He actually played the head at a medium-fast tempo compared to other versions I’ve heard. But once it was time to solo his fingers flew across the keys, once again invoking Bird. Dyson’s drums stuttered underneath, finding Curtis, Moran and Brooks for powerful hits at agreed-upon intervals that gave new shape to the old tune. Curtis’s nimble piano solo drew several yelps of approval from Harrison before the whole band made a mad dash to the finish line; with the exception of Max Moran, who counterpunched a figure on the upright bass like a brave, Indian warrior in the face of overwhelming odds.
Having sufficiently proven their understanding of classic jazz, Harrison next called two tunes from the newest release, Quantum Leap. The first one, “Sand Castle Headhunter,” was the highlight of the night for me. Harrison played the angular head over a hip hop rhythm. He then stepped out of the spotlight to help Moran switch from upright to electric bass as Brooks took the first solo, plinking and bubbling through a cosmos of heavy funk. Curtis explored the lower third of his keyboard more than any previous tune when it was his turn. But this section became less about the solo and more about the interplay between this young trio who made up the rhythm section, with all three finding comfortable footing in this modern sound. Harrison closed the song with his most gleeful solo of the evening, reaching for new finger positions capable of translating his melodic ideas into tangible sound.
“Young MJ” was Harrison’s tribute to Michael Jackson. Much like the King of Pop was the musical progeny of the Godfather of Soul, this composition borrows from “I Want You Back” the same way “Free to Be” references “I Got The Feeling.” The whole band exuded ebullient 1970s-style, and looking around the audience I could see everyone’s heads bobbing on their shoulders. Harrison had the band conduct another exercise in deconstruction following the tune. This time showing off some of the dance moves he learned growing up watching Michael and his brothers on Soul Train and other TV specials.
It was time for the first set to come to a close. But not before Harrison steered us in one more musical direction with an exploration of pop jazz from the album, 3D. “Don’t tell Chris Botti and Kenny G,” he said. “They like to call it smooth jazz but it’s really pop music.” In Harrison’s hands, this so-called smooth jazz was anything but languid. I daresay he played as ferociously as he had at any other point in the evening, with impossible multitudes of notes precisely dotting between the measures. The only difference was that the song form didn’t follow the typical jazz convention and both Curtis and Moran switched to electric instruments. Even when Moran downshifted the tempo into a Funkadelic bass line, Harrison maintained his fevered pitch for several more minutes before finally breaking off to thunderous applause.
Now the tune evolved into Roberta Flack’s instantly recognizable slow-jam, “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Harrison played through the melody one time then yielded the spotlight to Curtis, who conjured up a Fender Rhodes sound from the keyboard that kept the mood sweet. Then it was Detroit’s turn to work the lower fretboard with toe-curling sensuality. As the tune faded out, all the band members faced the crowd with eyes closed in rapt imagination. But Harrison didn’t let them take the tune all the way out. He played a Maceo Parker lick that brought the band back into the urban groove for one more breakneck solo before letting the audience catch its breath for 15 minutes.
What could Harrison possibly do in the second set to top that? How about a non-stop Mardi Gras party? Kicking off with a version of “Iko-Iko” that featured call-and-response singing with Brooks, Harrison actually never picked up his horn, opting to work the congas that had been front and center on stage and then strolling over to Curtis’s electric keyboard to overlay some Hammond B3 organ grooves. When the song transitioned into the Neville Brother’s “Hey Pocky-Way,” Harrison started yelling for everybody in the house to get up. As we all danced to the thumping backbeat, Harrison sang and beat-boxed, then grabbed strands of beads from a bag at the back of the stage and started throwing them to people in the crowd.
The entire VJC was in a frenzy by then. Uman is in the aisle to my right, dress shirt drenched in sweat as he and his wife danced. Videographer Ian Kiehle climbed onto a chair to continue capturing the madness from the safety of higher ground. Harrison was performing arm-crossing histrionics on the congas and alternately chanting “Watcha gonna do on the Mardi Gras?” and “Ain’t no party like a New Orleans party!”
Harrison took a well-deserved break and invited Samirah Evans on stage. The two know each other well from New Orleans and he gracefully moved to the back of the house to offer her the crowd’s full attention. Evans swung through two choruses of “Exactly Like You,” her gesticulations letting the musicians know when she wanted accents and rests as if they were pre-arranged and not the product of an extemporaneous idea. She was equally gracious as Harrison, askings each member of the quartet to solo before taking the song out with soulful vocal flourishes.
The night closes with the Mardi Gras Indian’s chant, “Hoo-na-ney.” Harrison mostly faced his young rhythm section, both natives of the Crescent City, for vocal call and response, and you could envision him in the beaded and feathered garb of the Congo Square Nation tribe he leads, carrying on the traditions he has learned from his father, Donald, Sr. “Ain’t No Party Like a New Orleans Party” he sang again and again, and all of us at the VJC that night bore witness to that truth.