When he was coming up in the mid-80s, explosive hard-bop drummer Winard Harper couldn't apprentice with the Jazz Messengers, the foremost academy for young players of that bent--its leader, Art Blakey, was still alive, and the band only had room for one drummer. So Harper did the next best thing: he joined vocalist Betty Carter's trio, which had already incubated a slew of excellent rhythm players. He's indicated that he didn't really enjoy his time under Carter's thumb, but he left her employ a larger-than-life drummer in the Blakey mold: more than just an accompanist, he's an electrifying colorist, ferocious timekeeper, and constantly inventive musical partner. His first post-Carter project, the Harper Brothers (with his trumpet-playing sibling, Philip), thrived under his command, at least artistically; its four Verve albums earned critics' kudos, but sold poorly. He's since made three equally energetic albums under his own name, and the sextet he brings to Chicago closely resembles the band on the last two: Harper adds a percussionist (though he hardly needs assistance in that department) to a conventional two-horn hard-bop quintet and showcases Patrick Rickman, a trumpeter who infuses his mainstream expertise with a rule-bending willfulness that looks back to Louis Armstrong and forward to Lester Bowie. The real star, though, is Messengers alumnus George Cables (class of '69). Cables's effervescent piano lines reached the widest audience through his 70s collaborations with sax legends Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper and vibist Bobby Hutcherson; at the same time his compositions were finding their way into the repertoires of two more of his former employees, Joe Farrell and Freddie Hubbard. I can't recall when Cables last played Chicago, and I can't wait to hear him again. Wednesday, 8 PM, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. Thursday, 7:30 PM, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.; 773-947-0600.