Winter & Winter JMT Edition 919 008-2

Active in working with performance artists, dancers and in theatrical productions as well as in pure instrumental settings, trombonist Craig Harris brings a heightened sense of social concerns to all of his work.

His highest profile came in the 1970s and 1980s following tenures in aggregations as different as Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Abdullah Ibrahim’s quintet and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Harris has also had a long time association with David Murray’s octets and big bands and is a founding member of the trombone quartet, Slide Ride.

Still, among all of this, he has found time to regularly perform for homeless shelters in New York and to develop a jazz/hip hop community project to engage young people in the creation of original work.

Theatre and social concerns first combined to become a Harris obsession with this recently reissued 1986 disc built around his genuine concern for the homeless. Listening to it 15 years later, when the problem has hardly abated, you can hear the shortcomings and successes involved in creating program music. To put it bluntly, the CD is instrumentally excellent, but features distracting vocal interpolations.

Calling on an early background that included playing in R&B bands and Broadway pit orchestras, Harris tried to create a sound that was as loosely swinging as it was approachable. However, reaching out for a populist sound include the misstep — or is that misspeak — of writing lyrics for singer Tunde Samuel on two tracks. Samuel whose delivery seems to be a strained amalgam of Leon Thomas, Al Jarreau and Sammy Davis Jr. is paradoxically too formal, yet too pop-oriented, for the emotions he tries to convey. Plus Harris’ songwriting attempts are strictly in the “moon-june-spoon” lineage and are as banal as they are lightweight. Luckily these tunes only take up about six minutes of the more than 43-minute session.

Unfortunately one of the songs is at the beginning of Harris’ heartfelt core composition, the almost 17-minute-plus “Shelter Suite”, dedicated to the homeless. Later on though, as it unfolds it improves as the five instrumentalists blend like one of those straightforward small groups of the 1930s, a resemblance made clearer with Don Byron’s clarinet used as a main voice.

Performing like a veteran Swing combo — John Kirby sextet comes to mind — the Tailgaters run through a variety of melodies and counter melodies. Most prominent is the recurring melancholy theme, initially made more prominent by Harris’ didgeridoo and Eddie Allen’s muted trumpet. Each musician seems to play many roles, with Harris, back on his main axe, moving from guttural vocalizing and note bending to a more mellow, legato Lawrence Brown-style sophistication. Speedy on regular black stick, Byron adds to the thematic sadness on the last section with his bass clarinet, while with a jarring growl, Allen proves that he can trumpet Cat Anderson’s legacy any time.

Throughout, the downhearted themes and the out-of-tempo Braxtonian march sections are kept on an even keel by Anthony Cox’s steady bass work and Pheeroan Aklaff’s forceful drumming.

“Cootie”, which likely honors Mr. Williams — rather than commenting on bedbugs — is a tune that morphs between Dixie-Swing and its cool West Coast version, featuring Depression era clarinet lines and with Allen assuming the Ellington soloist’s persona, firing off one open-horn high note after another. Working in simple shuffle rhythms with military precision Aklaff ends up trading fours with Harris.

Everything is brought to fruition on “Sound Sketches”, one of those sneaky pieces like Julius Hemphill’s “The Hard Blues”, which allows soloists all sorts of freedom since the unvarying beat is thick and heavily accented — it even sounds as if an electric bass was used on this track. Time and tempo changes frequently during the composition with Swing, a stop-time section and even something that sounds like a TV detective show melody appearing and disappearing. Finishing at marathon race velocity, there’s a protracted ending to prolong the excitement.

All and all, this is a memorable Harris-led session that certainly deserved to be brought back from delete limbo. If only he had left all the “singing” to the instrumentalists, though.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Africans Unite*^ 2. Shelter Suite. 2.1 Shelter^ 2.2 Subway Scenario 2.3 Sea of Swollen Hands 2.4 Three Hots and a Cot 2.5 Shelter (Reprise) 3. Cootie 4. Reminiscing 5. Sound Sketches

Personnel: Edward E.J. Allen (trumpet); Craig Harris (trombone, didgeridoo); Don Byron (clarinet, bass clarinet); Rod Williams* (piano); Anthony Cox (bass); Pheeroan Aklaff (drums); Tunde Samuel^ (vocals)