Donald Harrison | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Donald Harrison


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Physically, alto saxist Donald Harrison has chops like Louis Armstrong, his fellow New Orleans native--a broad mouth and full, fleshy lips--so some people think he should play "bigger" than he does. (A local saxophonist once complained to me, "If I had those lips, I'd have a sound like Cannonball"--meaning Cannonball Adderley, whose tone could stuff a room.) But Harrison has refused to let physiognomy determine his fate, instead borrowing a little from the heavy-lidded sensuality of altoist Johnny Hodges and a lot from the fluttering, flutelike tones of tenor man Charles Lloyd, with an occasional blast of Eric Dolphy's naked cry. Harrison first arrived on the scene in the unenviable position of following the Marsalis brothers in the mid-80s incarnation of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and at the time the signal aspects of his style hadn't really jelled. But they have since, into a cool soulfulness that mixes southern ease with New York verve and includes echoes of the Mardi Gras Indians (exemplified by the Wild Magnolias) who stomp their way through the annual Fat Tuesday parade. Harrison calls his music "nouveau swing"--which was the title of his 1997 disc and is the modus operandi of the newly released and entirely seductive Free to Be (both on Impulse)--and it embraces everything from "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" to the lesser-known Ellington ballad "Blue Rose" to his own ripsnorting "Indian Blues." Harrison's rhythmically diverse, deceptively bashful style draws you to his music rather than pushing it into your lap, and has helped make him one of the most consistently satisfying alto saxists around. Free to Be features two excellent trios, the younger of which--pianist Andrew Adair, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer John Lamkin--Harrison will bring for this one-night celebration of the album's release. Monday, 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Jackson.

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