|Great musicians around the world know Harry Whitaker. Practically all the jazz musicians working in New York know him. He's touched the lives of many people, and few are as musically respected and personally beloved as he. Throughout his career, he has been a tributary in the great musical confluence. His music is rich, with deep soul, and staggering beauty. But the listening public does not know of him yet. This'the first-ever recording featuring Whitaker performing his own original works, and the start of a new series on this label'will help to change that.
To understand what makes Whitaker a musical treasure, one should first look to Harry Whitaker the person. His warm spirit and deep love for people and living combined with his innate smarts and creativity make him able to produce musical works that come to life. But to understand fully, one also needs to look at the unique artistic and cultural context in which he developed. In the course of his career, Whitaker took part in some of the most creative movements in American music in the last fifty years, and they all play a part in his music. Beginning with deep jazz roots, he composed, arranged, conducted, and/or performed music of many different styles, including jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, soul, funk, and black-psychedelia. As with Ellington, music is a broad fabric to him, and he ties together what to some others might be considered disparate styles. Yet he is always authentic. In fact, he's authoritative. Looking at his background, one can see where the world went right.
Harry Whitaker was born on September 19, 1942 in Pensacola, Florida. He began learning the piano at age 5, and began classical lessons at age 7. [See the photo on the back of this disk.] He moved to Chicago in 1948, and to Detroit in 1953 at age 11. His father used to take him to the Masonic Temple, The Blue Bird, and out to River Rouge. These were places that were open all night, with after-hours sessions. And this was during a great flourishing of music on the Detroit scene. Emerging at that time were Yusef Lateef, Hank and Thad Jones (and later Elvin), Barry Harris, Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers, and many others. Every great jazz musician of the day passed through at one time or another as well. And you can never have a better teacher than everybody.
In 1959, at age 16, Whitaker graduated high school and embarked on the road with dexterous bassist Ray McKinney (another member of the abundantly talented McKinney family). After two years, he moved to New York. In 1965 he got a call from Slide Hampton, then the musical director of the Lloyd Price band, inviting him to audition for the band. Lloyd Price, a.k.a. 'Mr. Personality,' employed a band of world-class jazz musicians with many notable names, such as Pepper Adams, Pat Martino, Calvin Newborn, Kenny Dorham, Jimmy Heath, Charlie Persip, and of course Slide Hampton, doing stints at various times. It's testimony to Whitaker's talent that he made the cut and held his own with the best musicians in the business at age 22. Then, in 1970, he was invited by Alphonse Mouzon to audition for Roy Ayers, a pivotal figure at the intersection of jazz, soul, and funk. After passing the audition and joining Ayers' group 'Ubiquity,' Whitaker arranged and performed on the classic 'We Live In Brooklyn Baby,' whose deep, dark, and danceable groove finds ongoing relevance with new audiences year after year. Whitaker toured the world with Ubiquity, and while in Japan, he struck up friendships with Teramsu Hino and Teruo Nakamura and both would become long-term friends and collaborators. [Nakamura, in fact, was the first to record the tune 'Steppin' With The Lord' that appears on this disk.]
In one of the key encounters of Whitaker's career, composer Eugene McDaniels, who penned several pop hits such as 'Compared To What' and 'Feel Like Making Love,' asked Whitaker to arrange, conduct, and perform for McDaniels' tour-de force, the ambitious and politically-charged Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse for Atlantic Records. [As a badge of honor, the record drew condemnation from the Nixon White House, then in it's last throes before collapsing in scandal.] In attendance at the Headless Heroes session was singing star Roberta Flack Impressed with Whitaker's work, she invited him to become her musical director. And in 1975, when then music director Leon Pendarvis went to work for the nascent Saturday Night Live, Harry took on the role, and over the next five years worked on some of Flack's biggest hits, such as 'Feel Like Making Love' and 'The Closer I Get To You.' He also recorded his own ambitious work entitled Black Renaissance ' Body Mind and Spirit (featuring Woody Shaw, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, and Mtume, amongst others), now considered a cult classic.
In recent years, he's done many things, too numerous to mention in this space. He was a regular around the original Smalls (when it was run by Mitch Borden), performing there, and spending many nights playing chess in the back room with all comers. His regular gig at Arturo's Restaurant has become a New York institution, and famous singers such as Tony Bennett drop in to sing one with him when they're in town. He's worked a lot in recent years with musicians who themselves spent a lot of time at the original Smalls, such as Joe Magnarelli, Eric McPherson, Saul Rubin, and Neal Caine (all of whom I might add urged the importance of producing this recording). Whitaker also arranged and played piano on Claudia Acu'a's well-received debut release on Verve. Some of his work is enjoying a second life, for example in the original sound track to the film Pulp Fiction, and in the form of samples for hip-hop recordings (eg, by Mos' Def, and Diggable Planets).
It is easy to see the wealth of influences in Whitaker's music. But you need to add Whitaker's own sensibilities, which includes a flair for episodic musical storytelling with a wide dramatic scope. On 'The Children and The Warlock,' Whitaker really does envision children speaking with a warlock. On 'Steppin' With The Lord,' Whitaker envisions two armies that crossed each other in the desert and began to fight. The Lord interceded to stop the two, but when He turned His attention away, the two armies begin to fight again. The record as a whole is programmed as though it were an extended work. The two short moody pieces 'Safari' and 'Thoughts' are particularly piquant. They are used as interludes, but they make satisfying statements on their own. Though all of these works were composed back over a period of years, they sound fresh and original to today's ears. I feel that Whitaker has achieved all along what quite a few people unsuccessfully strive to do now. Whitaker's music takes many different things and synthesizes them together into something deeply satisfying. He personally and authentically embodies all of the styles of gospel, r&b, soul, funk, &c. that he draws on, which is what makes it so damned powerful when he puts them together. The first five minutes of this record will leave many speechless.
The band is perfect for the date. Omer Avital, now the young veteran and a famous bandleader in his own right, is a musical dramatist and episodic storyteller par excellence with compositional sensibilities very much like Whitaker's. Listen, for example, to Avital's Asking No Permission (Smalls SRCD-0011), or The Ancient Art of Giving (Smalls SRCD-0014). Avital flies with this material. He plays as an equal voice to the piano, never missing a move, and playing ' always ' with great passion. Dan Aran, who like Omer comes from Israel, is a very sincere and expressive player with scary-good chops. He's played with Harry at Arturo's for years, so he knows the tunes forward and backward. He's played with Avital a lot too, and they really connect beautifully. Aran has a rare gift for playing complex cross rhythms that move all around the beat without ever stepping on the soloist or forcing the direction to take, and he makes it really swing.