Billy Harper | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Billy Harper 

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When I listen to saxophonist Billy Harper, I often recall the title of his mid-70s album Black Saint--a powerful image of strength and spiritualism in a music world too often ruled by false gods. (Not coincidentally, the record was the first release from the now famous Italian label of the same name.) Harper's tenor thunders and sings, often at length and occasionally to excess, but it's never merely loud or garrulous; even when he writes a swingy waltz melody (a holdover from his childhood in the Methodist church), it doesn't sound trivial--his music smiles without smirking, and lifts the spirit while keeping its feet on the ground. Along with fellow tenor men Jan Garbarek and George Adams, Harper spent the 70s crafting a unique style from the legacy of John Coltrane. Since then hundreds of players have come to worship at Trane's altar, but Harper's sound, full of earth tones and reedy harmonics, comes closest to the complex resonance of the original. His visit this weekend overlaps with Charles Lloyd's stint at the Jazz Showcase (see separate Critic's Choice)--which means that two of the saxists most immediately and profoundly influenced by Coltrane will appear in Chicago as the jazz world commemorates what would've been his 75th birthday (September 23). Over the last five years, in fact, Chicago has begun to look like Harper's home away from home: he's shown up several times as a member of Malachi Thompson's Freebop Band, and earlier this month he appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival as featured soloist with Marshall Vente's Project 9. But I can't remember when, if ever, Harper has played here at the helm of his own inspiring, inflammatory quintet. Featuring trumpeter Eddie Henderson and a terrific pianist, Francesca Tanksley, whose blunt chords provide a beautiful bulwark for the horn men's improvisations, this band provides a better context than any other for Harper's sword-of-God solos. Friday, September 21, 9 PM, and Saturday, September 22, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.

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