One of the most self-effacing musicians of Chicago’s AACM scene paradoxically creates some of its boldest music, and bassist Harrison Bankhead’s second album confirms that Morning Sun Harvest Moon was no one-off fluke.
After decades contenting himself as a sidemen to avant-jazz luminaries from Roscoe Mitchell to Fred Anderson, the Waukegan, Illinois native revealed himself on the debut album to be a very capable leader and composer, and does it again with Velvet Blue. Here he leads a formidable quartet of fellow Chicagoans, all of whom lent vital support to Bankhead’s first album. His precise, steady bass playing that gave a groove to so much great avant-jazz from the Windy City is applied to his own adventurous songs spanning his new record. His own musical concepts are rooted deeply in tradition while branching out to the limits of what’s possible from four skilled multi-instrumentalists. And it takes no time at all for them to start realizing those possibilities.
“Velvet Blue,” the song, has the depth, swing and emotional character that makes up some of the finest jazz right from Bankhead’s opening circular bass figure, and Avreeayl Ra’s softly parlayed cymbals enhances that feel. Mars Williams’ tenor sax soon crafts soulful expressions and Ed Wilkerson’s clarinet fills in any gaps; soon the two are switching roles. Ten minutes in, everyone but Bankhead recedes, and the leader keeps the groove going no matter how far he steps out. Ra returns doing that sublime thing he does throughout the album: freestyle on his drums in subdued, supportive ways. When the reeds return it appears they’re going to exploit the groove some more but soon have a spiritual outburst, and the commotion settle down leaving a smoldering pile of rubble at the end of the quarter-hour performance. But by then, Bankhead has taken us through a whole range of so much of what makes jazz so fascinating. “Rhythm of the Earth,” which begins with an increasingly intense Ra drum solo, also eases itself into a rapturous, tribal groove anchored by Bankhead’s repeating bass figure.
“After Hours” is even more adventurous, but in an unassuming way. Wilkerson’s harmonica minimally makes notes as Ra creates a pillow-y cymbal sonic bed, which carries over as a backdrop to Bankhead’s simple but elegant piano. The same piano figure reappears in the aftermath of a free-for-all that consumes the first half of “Take It To The Bridge, Ya’ll.” The piano has a calming effect on Williams’ soprano and Wilkerson’s tenor, another display of the beauty coexisting with the feral that marked Pharoah Sanders’ most celebrated work.
More unexpected turns are in store for listeners of this album. The unrelenting, free jazz rage of “Right On It” is followed by the serenity of “Ancestors of the Pharoahs of Nabta Playa,” a collection of African-originated instruments with Bankhead on African marimba, Williams on kalimba, Wilkerson on an Australian didgeridoo and Ra on thumb piano. Williams is later heard jamming along on soprano sax.
“A Sketch of Stravinsky” is the most solemn song of the batch, Wilkerson’s lonely clarinet barely existing with Ra’s tom-tom drums stalking behind. Bankhead slowly saws his bass with very low, dark notes; combined with Ra’s low rumble, a dark drone is formed and the song is shaped not with harmony but with the right mixture of timbres.
Harrison Bankhead makes the case once again he’s not only a first-rate bassist but a creator of adventurous jazz who deserves much wider notice. Velvet Blue confirms his ability to lead records that can stand right alongside the stronger records of his better-known bosses.
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Velvet Blue goes on sale November 12, by Engine Studios.