Donald Harrison is a versatile jazz musician with a sense of history and the knowledge of how he can best explore it while advancing his own, very personal, musical vision. Harrison is basically a jazz artist who has embraced Duke Ellington's dictum -- "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind." -- and used it to showcase his multicultural roots.
By ranging from the second-line rhythms of his native New Orleans to the hip-hop flair of Digable Planets' "Cool Like That," snipping a pulse from James Brown's funky repertoire and riffing on chestnuts like "They Can't Take That Away From Me," Harrison covers a lot of territory in the course of one set.
It was a nearly full house in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for the last concert of the Art of Jazz season and the concert was fully worthy of playing to a packed venue. Harrison's hard-driving yet fluid alto playing was the dominant force onstage but members of his young backup band had their moments.
Although pianist Zaccai Curtis, drummer Joe Dyson and guitarist Detroit Brooks all had their moments in the spotlight, bassist Max Moran's performances were the kind of thing that one had to sift apart from the sonics put forth by the other band members to understand just how good he was.
Curtis is a talented pianist and band leader in his own right while Dyson's dynamic time-keeping with bass drum kicks, high-hat rhythms and near-constant motion of the sticks between the tom and snare made me think of a young Tony Williams. Brooks' more subdued onstage presence almost hid his angular, single-note runs and octave chording in the overall mix.
But really, it was all about Harrison. His playing goes in, out and around the melody line, toying with it, stating it as a reference point and then weaving his own themes from the base. "Free To Be," the first tune of the night, set the stage. Nothing else in the evening was as lengthy and devoted to making the point that this was Harrison's gig. While he gave space to the band members for their own statements, Harrison took the lion's share of time to display his wares.
With the top dog honors well and fully established, he led his group through well thought-out originals like the hip-hop-influenced "Nouveau Swing," a "Quantum Leap" that stretched the group's collective skills, and a funky, funky "The Sandcastle Headhunter."
Harrison is also a witty master of ceremonies even if some of his wit verges on the lovably cornball. For instance, Harrison told the audience he was going to introduce the band and then had guys all shake hands with each other in a display of bonhomie before actually letting the folks in the seats know who actually played what.
As is the case at all of the Art of Jazz concerts, there was a preshow feature that began an hour before the musicians took the stage. This time it was the showing of a documentary called "All on a Mardi Gras Day," which explored the beginnings of (and cultural differences between) "Mardi Gras" and "Carnival Day" in New Orleans. The film followed, among other topics, the historical progression of flamboyantly dressed neighborhood gangs known as tribes on their path to respectability. It was the perfect setup piece for the concert.
Part of the Art of Jazz Series.
Saturday evening in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.