Friday, January 24, 2014

Bassist Harrison Bankhead, back in front

Posted By on 01.24.14 at 02:00 PM

Harrison Bankhead
A couple of years ago the venerable, versatile Chicago-area bassist Harrison Bankhead—a key force in Edward Wilkerson's great 8 Bold Souls and a trusted collaborator of Ernest Dawkins, Hamid Drake, Fred Anderson, Dee Alexander, and Roscoe Mitchell, among others—finally stepped forward with a recording under his own leadership. Morning Sun Harvest Moon (Engine) was a hard-hitting, soulful jam that delivered an alchemical blend of lean-but-insinuating written themes and extended improvisation. Bankhead took his fair share of solo space, but he never relinquished his strong support skills. He led a killer band of players he'd worked with for years: reedists Wilkerson and Mars Williams, violinist James Sanders, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and percussionist Ernie Adams. I'm happy to report that Bankhead didn't revert back to a strict sideman role after the record's release; last November he released a terrific follow-up with Velvet Blue (also on Engine), fronting Wilkerson, Williams, and Ra.

The album opens with the powerful title track, a heartfelt homage to the singular club owned by Fred Anderson, the Velvet Lounge. The 15-minute burner begins at a cool simmer over a deep, rolling groove, with the saxophonists swapping and overlapping poignant, affecting statements—alternately bluesy, sobbing, and triumphant. The exchanges are marked by the kind of empathy and careful listening that comes from years of experience. The piece, which as a single track stands up against any other jazz tune I heard all last year, follows a wonderfully woody, stately improvisation by the leader with several minutes of ratcheting fury, concluding in a manic dash with the two seasoned horn men tangling lines, bouncing off one another, and braiding their sweet-sour tones. "Ancestors of the Pharoahs of Nabta Playa" is a gentle meditation with soprano sax and various thumb pianos, where even the didgeridoo drone of Wilkerson fits the solemn, hypnotic mood.

Harrison_Bankhead_Velvet_Blue.jpg
While there are a few other contemplative numbers, the album is balanced with rip-snorting free jazz like "Right On It," a high-velocity burner that races out of the gate more concerned with propulsion and pure energy than subtle interplay—although that still plays a part in the roiling maelstrom—and the hurricane of "Rhythm of the Earth," which builds from a relatively calm intro into a high-octane showcase for Williams who embraces his tenor's upper register like a scythe, before Wilkerson's tender, lyric clarinet playing brings it back down to the ground. "Take it to the Bridge Ya'll" begins wildly, but soon eases back into a piano-driven hymn that recalls the solemnity of Abdullah Ibrahim. It's another diverse, satisfying effort from Bankhead, a bandleader who knows when to stay out of the way. Here's hoping the recordings and shows keep coming.

You can listen to the wonderful title track below.


Today's playlist:

Frank Emilio, Cuban Danzas & Danzones (Yemayá)
Various artists, Don't Stop: Recording Tap (Numero Group)
Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music (Atco)
Steve Kuhn Trio, Three Waves (Contact/Fresh Sound)
Mano Décio Da Viola, Capítulo Maior da História do Samba (Discobertas)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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