The city of Baltimore is known for many things, not least of which is jazz wizards Bill Frisell, Billie Holiday, Gary Bartz, and drummer composer, bandleader, and educator Winard Harper. With trumpeter-brother Philip, Winard Harper co-led the Harper Brothers, one of the most successful—artistically and popularity-wise—straight-ahead, hard-boppin’ jazz bands from 1988 through to its 1993 dissolution. Like Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers before them, the Harper Brothers were a great incubator of talent, with such players as Stephen Scott, Javon Jackson, and Walter Blanding passing through the ranks. As all good things must, the Harper Brothers’ band came to a parting of the ways, laying the groundwork (not so ironically) to even better things.
Winard Harper began playing drums at age five—by seven, he was playing in his brother Danny’s R&B combo. That aside, Winard Harper honed his craft accompanying Dexter Gordon (at the tender age of 20), James Clay, Houston Person, Mark Murphy, and Betty Carter, the latter for a four-year tenure. Harper brings the sum total of these experiences—and more—to his latest venture, the band he has dubbed the Jeli Posse. Jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is another name for griot, a mobile/wandering combination of storyteller, historian, poet, and musician. (One could consider them the African counterpart to the bards of the British Isles.) Winard sees this band as an extension of that tradition: “Jazz has always been social commentary and expression,” he says. Coexist embodies the role of the jeli—history, storytelling, poetry, and musicianship practically jump out of the speakers (or earphones, for the ipod generation). The very concept of Coexist also relates to the performers. “[The Jeli Posse] represent different ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds transcending differences for a common cause.”
With a cursory listen, Coexist might seem to be more of the classic hard bop album—the “Young Lions” of the 1980s were notorious for. (Soprano sax icon Steve Lacy referred to them as “reboppers.”) The opening track “Something Special,” with its engaging, blue-sharp melodic head, earnest swing, and surging, simmering, swinging, solos, wouldn’t sound out of place on an early ‘60s Blue Note session helmed by Blakey, Horace Silver, or Freddie Hubbard. But Harper and Jeli Posse aren’t merely going for the “style” or “sound” of the classic Blue Note era, but its essence. The pensive “Ummah” finds Harper playing African mallet instrument the balaphone—this track distills the sweet ache of yearning, but without rage or impatience, but rather infused with hope. The gospel-infused “Hard Times” and the ancient Anglo-American hymn “Amazing Grace” feature sumptuously blues-rich Duke Ellington-like horn voicings and Armstrong/Morton-esque New Orleans group wailing. The Ellington-writ standard “In A Sentimental Mood” finds the Jeli Posse joined by Count Basie veteran Frank Wess on oh-so-elegant flute. Fear not, hard bop devotees—the knotty yet urgent “Triumph” roars with class and—note Michael Dease’s trombone solo—a touch of refreshing irreverence. The pop standard “Dedicated to You,” nods to the smooth, amorous tenor ballad tradition of Houston Person and Gene Ammons. The closing track “Jeli Posse” brings together it all together—African motifs, blues, gospel, swing, soul jazz, blistering bop, and even a touch of funk…it’s all American, all music, all over the globe.
“Everything builds on what is around as the values and traditions are passed down. From the African roots to today, many ingredients have been thrown into the pot…that includes the ground laid by the medicine men and messengers before us. Coexist speaks to these complex economic and social times. Tracks like ‘Ummah’ (“Community”) and ‘Amazing Grace’ highlight the communal and the spiritual,” says Harper. (The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton, a British slave-trader that underwent a religious conversion and sought Forgiveness for previous deeds.) For the past couple of decades, many jazz performers talk about “the tradition” and idealize what has been—Winard Harper knows the tradition is about learning from the past, living in the present, and reaching to the future. Get Yours HERE!
Winard Harper – Drums, Percussion & Balaphone
Bruce Harris – Trumpet & Flugelhorn
Jovan Alexandre – Tenor Sax
Michael Dease – Trombone
Roy Assaf – Piano
Stephen Porter – Bass
Abdou Mboup – Percussion, Bongos & Talking Drums
Alioune Faye – Percussion & Djembe
Jean Marie – Percussion