Watching Winard Harper behind his drum set, it's easy to forget he's hard at work: his effortless ebullience and high-wattage smile remind you why they call it playing music. Like a Formula One car, he combines explosive energy with technical wizardry, his hard swing sweetly lubricated by the sophisticated feel of his favorite Blue Note and Prestige recordings of the 50s and 60s. Harper's own groups, two-horn combos patterned after those of his chief model, Art Blakey, are the best way to enjoy him, but he brings the same strengths to a session as a sideman: on a new recording by Parisian vocalist Sara Lazarus, he creates a perfect mix of accent and flow at almost every tempo. Harper's visits to the Jazz Showcase have become an annual affair, and this time he brings a sextet in transition, with two rookies joining longtime saxist Brian Horton in the front line: trumpeter Josh Evans and pianist T.W. Sample. Like Blakey, Harper has constructed a viable and durable working band, with a book strong enough that changes in personnel don't compromise its essence. And he's one-upped Blakey by mastering several African percussion instruments, which he shares with the band's sixth man, Senegalese drummer Alioune Faye--though Blakey pioneered American jazzmen's return to Africa, not even he learned to play djembe or balafon. See also Saturday and Sunday. Fri 7/1, 9 and 11 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand, 312-670-2473, $20.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.