NJ.com — November, 2013
NJPAC celebrates ‘Blues People at 50’ at the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival
Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger
While a trombone sang in husky tones and gentle bongo rhythms drifted through the air, artists across the Newark Museum stage held up paperback books above their microphones.
It was an unusual image, but it could hardly have been more appropriate for “A Celebration of Amiri Baraka’s ‘Blues People’ at 50,” a literature-inspired concert held at the museum on Tuesday as part of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival.
The event centered on “Keep Your Razor Sharp,” a rich, wide-ranging work by composer and trombonist Craig Harris, which he performed with Nation of Imagination, a band of five instrumentalists and two singers, along with two added narrators.
Baraka gave an introductory speech before the concert, in which he said, “when we change, the music changes,” and the composition echoed that statement. It encompassed densely layered, heated moments, laid-back ballad tempos and nods to funk, R&B and a hint of avant-garde.
Baraka, a Newark native and resident formerly known as Leroi Jones, has received numerous honors for his work as a poet, author and playwright. He has also maintained an active, sometimes controversial, role in political and community life.
In his 1963 “Blues People,” he wrote an in-depth history of music from the time of slavery throughout the various incarnations of blues and jazz, with integrated social commentary.
Harris began the performance with a trombone fanfare that sounded like a wake-up call and grew into an animated reflection. Then, he turned around, back to the audience, and tipped his instrument toward the band as ringing chimes and lush keyboard chords dramatically fleshed out the sound.
With text drawn from Baraka’s works, the composition began with the sober observation of “the only people not happy to come to America” before it moved on to forging identity — “the way we walk, the way we talk” and the clipped, rhythmic refrain “Blues People” led into the catalyzing call of “take the tragedy/make it magic.”
At that point, keyboardist Adam Klipple unleashed a virtuosic solo with a sense of danger as his fingers climbed, rapid-fire, higher and higher. It jangled into a wild, dissonant blur at the upper end of his instrument against the sizzle of hi-hat and then a fusillade of drum fireworks.
Over the course of the piece, vocalists Helga Davis and Carla Cook scatted confidently and smoothly harmonized. On one occasion, theirs and the narrators’ voices overlapped as they gazed at the books, giving the impression of a collective ingesting of Baraka’s words. Another impression of the vastness of the history Baraka chronicled came through in a sung list of names, with Lester Bowie and Lena Horne among its ranks.
Criticism lurked within, however, with references to the world’s stupidity and ugliness and a refrain “freedom, life, war, death.”
Harris’ skillfully manipulated trombone embodied the sultry rasp of a keyed-up blues singer, with the occasional colorful addition of a croak in its lowest register and a creak in the highest. He also sang seductively in the character of a man who aspires to be “Mr. Wrong.”
Guitarist Kelvyn Bell’s wailing solos stood out and Tony Lewis was a powerful presence on drums.
At one point, the performers seemed to have gone off-track, with quizzical looks exchanged and papers rifled through, and the vocalists’ microphones could have sometimes been turned up.
But the conviction that the artists added to the text — phrases such as “think of music as the only soul god could have” and “blues comes like a sentinel of the world” — never flagged. It was no surprise to see the crowd on its feet by the end of the performance.
The New York City Jazz Record – August, 2013
Interview: Craig Harris
By Brad Farberman
Read the interview on pages 6 and 32:
“Trombonist Craig Harris’ first job out of SUNY College at Old Westbury, where he studied with saxophonist Makanda Ken McIntyre and percussionist Warren Smith, was a three-month stint with Sun Ra. Work with Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand at the time), David Murray, Lester Bowie and hip-hop group The Roots followed. Since the late ’80s, Harris has spent time combining disciplines. His most recent album, 2005’s Souls Within the Veil, was inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. And this month, Harris has organized a 65th birthday celebration for the late Sekou Sundiata, a poet with whom he collaborated on a number of projects.” Read more
Jazz Prospecting – Monday, October 31, 2005
Tom Hull – On The Web
Craig Harris: Souls Within the Veil (2003 , Aquastra, 2CD)
Composed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, a book so forward thinking we ain’t got there yet. With three brass and four reeds there’s a lot of wind in these sails. But the extra percussion Kahil El’Zabar adds to Billy Hart’s drums and Cecil McBee’s bass helps on the bottom. No piano. Most pieces follow a series of superb solos—Steve Coleman, Hamiet Bluiett, Don Byron, Hugh Ragin, Graham Haynes, Oliver Lake, and the leader all have spots on the highlight reel. Likely to be upgraded when I get to spend more time with it. Unlikely to be in JCG, this time anyway, given that Francis Davis already praised it to the skies. Otherwise it would be a strong Pick Hit prospect, and may wind up in the year end list. A-
Village Voice – October 4th, 2005
Last Best Hope
Craig Harris meets W.E.B. DuBois and together they recreate two magnificent traditions
by Francis Davis
A mainstay of the ’80s avant-garde scene who hasn’t been heard from much lately, trombonist Craig Harris has re-emerged with Souls Within the Veil, a beauty of an extended work spread over two discs and inspired by a close reading of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folks. The all-star front line reads like a David Murray big-band reunion—Harris, trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Graham Hayynes, clarinetist Don Byron, and saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett, Steve Coleman, and Oliver Lake. All are hot, with Coleman and Bluiett on fire. While allowing the players plenty of room, Harris’s writing is lustrous and propulsive by turns—very often both. He’s attempted something ambitious and pulledd it off, capturing the variegated moods of the spirituals DuBois called “sorrow songs” without adhering to their form. The ensembles are occasionally a little rugged, and the live recording could be better, but none of this prevents Souls Within the Veil from soaring. Harris arrived in jazz during a time when the elevation of composition to an equal level with improvisation seemed the last best hope for the music’s continued growth, and so many of that era’s significant figures have fallen into neglect that it’s difficult not to be moved to nostalgia by a new work of this magnitude. Souls Within the Veil would’ve fit right in with the zeitgeist in 1984. It’s more welcome than ever in 2005.
The New York Times – April 1, 2003
DANCE REVIEW | ‘BROWN BUTTERFLY’
Jabbing and Feinting Through the Grand Life of Muhammad Ali.
By Jennifer Dunning
Craig Harris, Marlies Yearby and Aaron Davis Hall took three years to create “Brown Butterfly,” but the monumental production, performed on Saturday night at the hall at City College, is well worth the wait. Music, dance and video imagery combine inseparably to pay tribute to Muhammad Ali and his place in American social history.
Produced by Aaron Davis Hall, “Brown Butterfly” evokes Mr. Ali’s journey from the boxing ring to the world arena. The 75-minute production is driven by Mr. Harris’s score and its live performance. But Ms. Yearby’s choreography establishes the gut-level fundaments of Mr. Ali’s life: move fast and endure being “out there by yourself,” as Ms. Yearby put it in a recent interview.
Her six performers (Brian Brooks, Tarquin Gill-Kehoe, Tracy Lang, Yasmine Lee, Jeffrey Page and Baraka de Soleil) jab and feint in dance that incorporates resonant gestures. They share the stage with seven musicians (Mr. Harris, Eddie Allen, Damon DueWhite, Calvin Jones, Adam Klippie, Tony Lewis and Aaron Stewart) who move in and frame the ceaselessly shifting tableau.
Mr. Ali’s face and boxer’s body are the haunting motif in fast-paced archival and real-time video, created by Jonas Goldstein, that manages to suggest not only the athlete and his times but also the immense dignity of his personal crusades against racism and the Vietnam War. Mr. Ali’s voice echoes through the theater.
Mr. Harris is known for his precise and sensitive melding of musical styles. His score – for trombone, trumpet, drums, bass, keyboards, saxophone and something that sounds very like a didgeridoo – is a robust wonder, a rainbow tissue of world music, jazz, blues and popular period music.
“Brown Butterfly” is rooted in the qualities that made Mr. Ali a hero, to many black Americans in particular. It lacks the warmth of individual incident. But Mr. Harris and Ms. Yearby seem to be after grandeur here, and they have achieved it.
Bill Toles designed the sound. The lighting was by Michael Wangen and the scenic design by Doug Stein; the costumes were by Wunmi Olaiya. Laurie Carlos was the dramaturge, Nia Love was an assistant choreographer and Mark Goldberg was the video engineer.
Special to The Topeka Capital-Journal – April 14, 2003
‘Brown Butterfly’ delivers a punch.
By Chuck Berg
LAWRENCE — “Brown Butterfly,” the acclaimed multimedia celebration of Muhammad Ali, packs a wallop. At the conclusion of its Saturday stop at Lawrence’s Lied Center, the hip combination of Craig Harris’ jazz, Marlies Yearby’s dancers and Jonas Goldstein’s images had us on our feet applauding, and thinking. Indeed, one couldn’t help but look back to the 1960s when Ali was “The Greatest” and contemplate the singular role he played not only in sports, but also in the inferno fired by the decade’s roiling racial and political undercurrents.
Conceived by Harris and Yearby as a tribute to the majesty of Ali in his prime, and to also help us better understand the indomitable spirit that triumphed over adversity and controversy, “Brown Butterfly” transforms Ali’s unique attributes into art.
Just as Ali punched his way through the constraints of racial discrimination, Harris’ pulsating music smashed barriers between avant-garde jazz and rock that, while recalling the groundbreaking fusion work of Miles Davis, spoke with an inspired contemporary voice.
In fact, the seven musicians grouped in a semi-circle in front of the three large screens wailed and roared with accents recalling not only Davis, but also soul shouter James Brown and jazz titans John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp.
In turn, the arc of musicians cradled the pugilistically patterned movements of Yearby’s six dancers, three highly expressive women and three men whose physical approach to modern dance incorporated the repertoire of jabs and feints employed by Ali and a host of gestures gleaned from popular dances of the period, ranging from the watusi to the frug.
With Harris’ musicians and Yearby’s dancers set loose, videographer Goldstein discharged fusillades of charged imagery. There were shots of Ali firing punches, his backward-peddling rope-a-dope and his bantering with reporters.
Hundreds of other archival photos and film clips flashed glimpses of James Brown, Tina Turner, the Supremes, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, civil rights protest marches and white cops beating black people.
Added to the mix were electronically processed phrases from Ali and the musicians, and superimposed images of the musicians and dancers. The overall effect was electrifying.
While an unflinching time-machine visit back to Ali’s heyday, “Brown Butterfly” also was an artful call for renewing 1960s’ idealism, daring us to again dream of genuine racial and social equality, and a poignant invitation to celebrate the strengths of our diversity.
Kudos to “Brown Butterfly”‘s extraordinary cast of musicians, dancers and image-makers for a show that moved both body and soul. Their individual and collective moves, whether pre-planned or improvised, were on-target.
The spirit of Ali lives!
“Harris is a throwback to the days when brass players made their instruments speak. He can manipulate his slide and plungers to produce the sort of moans, shrieks, horse laughs, mock war whoops and comic epithets two generations of tightlipped bop trombonists had all but expunged from the horn’s working vocabulary.”
The Philadelphia Enquirer
“It is easy to imagine him breezing into Harlem 50 years ago and throwing a scare into any of the triumverate (three trombonists) in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”
“There is an element of nostalgia to the music – just as there was in Mingus’ – but it’s a nostalgia for an archetypal past; the music borrows ideas of personality instead of personality, ideas about structure instead of structure. Harris may use all of the vocal effects of the Ellington trombone section, but he sure doesn’t sound like them. Groomed as a headliner, he’ll prove that the passing of the bop generation doesn’t herald the passing of jazz, either as art or as finance.”
The Village Voice
“Craig Harris is a creator…an energy source, a moving spirit in turn-of-the century jazz”
“Harris, a New Yorker, writes uncramped, unhurried, composition paved with vamping rhythm that give him –not to mention his band – plenty of elbow room. As he states the theme and expounds on it, Harris suggests a sunrise, slowly spreading warmth and splendor.”
“Harris conveys a large emotional range in his music: he can go from atom-blast free jazz to tender ballads….he stretches out with billowing brunet solos that can cradle and elevate an audience, pushing on apparently inexhaustible supply of air into chorus after chorus, mixing clean postbop phrasing with ancient growls and space-age wheezes.”
“If his music partakes of the sense of freedom and willingness to flout convention associated with the avant-garde, it also partakes of a sense of fun and a rhythmic buoyancy that are essentially timeless and uncategorizable…His compositions are about what you’d expect from a fires-rate trombonist: alternately boisterous and sentimental, but never half-hearted, never dull.”
New York Post
“His performance… was a brilliant blending of Afro-American, African, and Australian music. Harris’ craft and compositions breathe new life back into Jazz traditions of previous generations.”