Harrison Bankhead – Morning Sun Harvest Moon (2011)

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As far as I can tell, Chicago bassist Harrison Bankhead doesn’t have a publicist or a website, and he hasn’t hauled a large band around Europe playing Curtis Mayfield songs. He does, however, have a record out at long last.

Born in Waukegan, Illinois, between Chicago and Milwaukee, Bankhead played guitar in 6th grade, soon switching over to electric bass to play in a band that played tunes by James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Jimmy Reed. Before long, he was playing in power trios inspired by Jimi Hendrix, where he started learning the improv skills that would serve him well in his career. He got into playing jazz gradually, going the fusion route and found himself getting into Miles Davis. From there he got introduced to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders. Eventually, he found his way into free jazz, and chose to gig with the avanteers over Chicago’s mainstream jazz guys. Beloved Art Ensemble of Chicago’s bassist Malachi Favors became a mentor and taught him much, especially arrangements. Other prominent players from the AACM gang like saxman Ed Wilkerson, Jr. were significant influences, too.

Bankhead has always been one of those guys who quietly toiled away at his craft, playing behind some of the very best jazz bandleaders from Chicago’s AACM crowd: Oliver Lake, Ernest Dawkins, Von Freeman, Roscoe Mitchell, Nicole Mitchell, Malachi Thompson, Hamid Drake and, as noted before, Fred Anderson. Bankhead first recorded with Anderson for Anderson’s 1995 release Birdhouse and appeared on about a half dozen more of his records all the way up until his last one before the iconic saxman’s death last year.

The prior two paragraphs are a little on the standard biographical side, but understanding where Bankhead came from musically goes a long way in appreciating that long-overdue first record of his, Morning Sun Harvest Moon. The band Bankhead had assembled for his maiden run as a leader is impressive as hell: Ed Wilkerson is joined by another major Chicago sax player, Mars Williams (The Psychedelic Furs, Billy Idol, Peter Brotzmann Tentet, The Vandermark 5). James Sanders (Nicole Mitchell, Alfonso Ponticelli, Larry Harlowe, Mwata Bowden, Doug Lofstrom, Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, the Latin Jazz band Conjúnto, etc.) is on violin, longtime Chicago avant-garde veteran Avreeayl Ra mans the drums, percussion and wooden flute, and Ernie Adams (Al DiMeola, Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine) plays percussion.

The eight tunes presented here created mostly off the cuff brings together all those valuable lessons Bankhead picked up from the time he first took up bass in a junior high school RnB band to his stint in Anderson’s last combos. Bankhead the leader is like Bankhead the sideman bassist: always aware, can locate the harmonics to any song no matter how out of control it appears to get, and build a perfect, firmly anchored groove to it. Everything that makes him the bass player of choice with the AACM crowd is present on these sessions.

This album, like many of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s best records, blurs the lines between improvised jazz, African folk music forms and American RnB; to them, “avant garde” often meant “foreign to mainstream jazz,” not necessarily atonal or free. That’s part of Bankhead’s musical DNA, too. The opening track “Morning Sun/Harvest Moon,” uses the timbres of wooden flutes and gently bowed violin and bass as a substitute for melody, evoking an image of a sleepy African fishing village at dawn (morning sun) or dusk (harvest moon). That leads into the Afro-Cuban groove of “Chicago Señorita,” (Youtube below), where Bankhead invents this great repeating figure on his bass and Sanders jams on like the late Billy Bang, while Wilkerson and WIlliams chime softly in with a small harmony part. Inventive, but very accessible, even danceable.

The sudden release that begins “East Village” gives way to Bankhead’s calypso bass riff augmented by some loose and festive percussion work. Once again, easy to absorb without any shortcuts taken. “Over Under Inside Out” is a lot what the title says it is, beginning almost nonchalantly as an inside song led by Williams and quickly collapsing into a free-for-all enjoined by everyone.

The next two tracks are more in the Fred Anderson vein, in terms of both length and intensity. “Red Is The Color In Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Silk Blue” underscores Bankhead’s active, sprawling bass lines that without being overly powerful, seem to dictate the direction of the song as it builds up to a crescendo, then grows more spare. “22nd Street Hustle (In Memory of Fred Anderson)” begins with an ensemble-wide emotional outpouring, but when the air clears, Bankhead emerges with yet another hypnotic, circular groove that Williams and Wilkerson take turns noodling over without any prescribed enunciations; it’s all feel.

“Flying Through Your Dreams” is so sparse that Wilkerson and Williams are barely perceptible on it, but the slight presence of most of the players on this track enables Bankhead to step up front, which he does with a divine, rumbling bass solo right at the middle part of the song. The album ends with “A Sketch of Leroy Jenkins,” a brief tribute to a great, Chicago violin player. Sanders’ skittish violin flies just barely over a low-intensity din.

Bankhead waited a long time before making his first record but evidently he knew just what to do when he finally got around to doing it. He made a record that pulled in the best elements of Pharoah Sanders, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Fred Anderson into a varying set of moods connected together by good ensemble instincts, otherworldliness and outstanding musicianship. The big names in improvised jazz get all the notice, but Harrison Bankhead is just as proven as those guys. Now that he’s led his own date on a record that does nothing except showcase all that is great about AACM jazz, Bankhead has nothing left to prove. With a debut like this, it’d be fantastic if he kept on proving with followup releases anyway.

Morning Sun Harvest Moon was released last May 24 by Engine Studios.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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