Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison – also known as Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation – brought progressive jazz and the funk, groove and lilting spirit of New Orleans roots music to Jazz Standard last night in a throw down of epic proportions. His multi-generational band, featuring veteran Detroit Brooks on guitar and rising stars Conun Pappas on piano (sitting in for Zaccai Curtis), Max Moran on bass, Joe Dyson on drums – along with guest artist trombonist and shell player Steve Turre – took the audience on a soulful, toe-tapping journey that begged the question, “Where’s the dance floor?”
The set took flight with Harrison’s jazz-funk composition, “Free to Be,” followed by an entertaining – and highly elucidating demonstration of how he took the bass line of a James Brown song and then overlaid a swing rhythm on drums and piano to create the jazzy yet danceable (as he proved on stage) hybrid that he calls “Nouveau Swing.” Harrison then shifted to the yearning beauty of “Lover Man,” a showcase for Steve Turre’s crisp “bop” articulation and warm balladry. From there, the band moved seamlessly into an interpretation of the Ray Noble gem, “Cherokee” – AKA Indian Love Song – offering the audience a rare opportunity to observe a brilliant interchange between Harrison and Turre – not merely as saxophonist and trombonist – but two acolytes of the school of Art Blakey trading licks and strutting their stuff.
Harrison’s New Orleans youngsters had a chance to show off their expertise on sizzling versions of the Mardi Gras Indian standard “Cissy Strut” and the Meters’ “Hey Pockey Way.” Pianist Conun Pappas maintained a shimmying filigree on piano in counterpoint to Max Moran’s sensuous and grinding groove on bass; Joe Dyson brought down the house with a ferocious drum solo that channeled Baby Dodds and Roy Haynes simultaneously.
Throughout it all, Harrison sang, chanted, moved, grooved and most of all blew into being a new chapter of jazz history with beautiful music and dangerous rhythm that merges r&b, hip-hop, soul and the traditional chants and drumming of Afro-New Orleans with modern jazz. Kudos to Jazz Standard for bringing Harrison & company to a New York audience – here’s hoping he comes back soon.