When Craig Harris exploded onto the jazz scene in 1976, he brought the entire history of the jazz trombone with him. From the growling gutbucket intensity of early New Orleans music through the refined, articulate improvisation of the modern era set forth by J.J. Johnson, and into the confrontational expressionism of the ’60s avant-garde, Craig handled the total vernacular the way a skilled orator utilizes the spoken word.
He has performed with a veritable Who’s Who of progressive jazz’ most important figures – including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Lester Bowie, The WORLD Saxophone Quartet, The Roots, RAKIM and the list goes on and on – his own projects displayed both a unique sense of concept and a total command of the sweeping expanse of musical expression. And it’s those two qualities that have dominated Craig’s past 15 years of activity, bringing him far beyond the confines of the jazz world and into the sphere of multimedia and performance art as composer, performer, conceptualist, curator and artistic director. Projects like, Souls Within the Veil, composed to commemorate the centennial of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Brown Butterfly, a multi-media work based on the movement of Muhamed Ali with video, dance, and music. God’s Trombones, based on James Weldon Johnson’s classic collection of poems that refigure inspirational sermons by itinerant Negro preachers.
Poet, playwright and political dissident Amiri Baraka (né Leroi Jones), who died Jan. 9th in Newark at the age of 79, was remembered in fine fashion with an evening of poetry, oratory and performance at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Feb. 8th). Along with speakers too numerous to mention, the long night included short sets by Baraka’s band Blue Ark (with pianist Adegoke Steve Colson) and a trio led by trombonist Craig Harris, who played the kind of music that fueled Baraka – exploratory, expository, transcendent, ever reaching. Harris grew slowly more fervent, pulling the pianist Donald Smith and bassist Calvin Jones behind him and then set a quick rhythm of triplets, which the pianist and bassist picked up on just as quickly. He worked that back into another ebullient theme but it was a slamming, Latin tinged piano solo that drew the most audience response.Following Harris’ solo, when the bassist returned to the triplet theme, it was hard not to think of it as a free march, a freedom march freely improvised for a man whose walk along this particular path had ended. Later,in the midst of a recitation of Baraka’s “Am”, an incendiary proto-rap revolving around references to John Coltrane and the repeated line “The victory is yours if you want it”, Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets forcefully intoned, “My country ‘tis of thee, land of soprano saxophones and unwritten poems.” It was hard to not think of the lines Baraka will not be writing. (KG) MARCH 2014 | THE NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD