|Coming across the music of Donald Harrison was something of a happy accident for me. I was not really listening to our local jazz radio station late one evening; my thoughts were wandering elsewhere. Suddenly this great tune came on. It consisted of a stripped-down funky rhythm overlaid with a simple yet insistent alto line which grew more and more intense and free as the track wore on. By this point the radio had my full attention and I was tapping my foot.
The piece in question was “Free Style,” the title track of alto saxophonist Donald Harrison's latest recording. This album, his second for thee German Nagel-Heyer label, continues the stripped-down style showcased on his first Nagel-Heyer album, Heroes (2004). The tracks are largely a set of trio recordings with Harrison joined by bassist Vincente Archer and drummer John Lamkin. Pianist Glen Patscha plays on three cuts and helps to round out the edges, so the overall experience isn’t too relentless.
Some of Harrison’s earlier work, like his '99 Impulse album Free to Be, used larger bands and sounded very polished. These days he sounds a lot more stripped-down and funky—most definitely a good thing. The preferred style these days is structured around a tightly-locked groove from the rhythm section. The lack of piano on most of the tracks gives Harrison a great deal of room to stretch out, and stretch out he does, building his simple themes to a towering intensity. Tracks like “Free to Be,” “Get Your Swerve,” and “Free Style” are groove-based and addictive—you just want them to carry on and on. Even the covers, like Miles Davis’ “So What” and Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” are a lot more tough and funky than I ever recall. If you grew up on funk and electronic music, where the groove is where it’s at, you will love this.