Spirits of Congo Square
The first recording by the New Orleans Legacy Ensemble is aptly titled Spirits of Congo Square-unfortunately, not in remembrance of the city's lively past as the birthplace of jazz, but for their wan, ghostlike performance. Despite the notable cast of musicians-Harrison Jr. on alto saxophone, Nicholas Payton on lead trumpet and a cast of other homegrown New Orleans boys including trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and tenor saxophonist Victor Goines-this studio session comes off clean but sterile, polished but not spirited. The band, which should hit with the power of a tank, or at least swing hard, just blows smoke.
The disc opens with "And How That Rhythm," a John O'Neal tune imitating the second line for which he provides a campy, introductory vocal: "Hey, where you at, lil' mama? I like the sound people make down here, huh yeah!" Yeah, right.
The material Harrison chooses certainly makes for strange bedfellows, and the style in which it is arranged and performed is the album's central difficulty. Freddie Hubbard's "Bob's Place," Joe Chambers' "Two Way Pockey Way" and Harrison's own "Don't Drink the Water" make for handsome hard bop, but come off as easy and bland in this updated New Orleans aesthetic. They don't offer much in the way of melody-just short, circular, repetitive phrases-and the arrangements lack additional writing for the 11-piece ensemble. Most tunes appear to be little more than strings of solos, and those solos have a tendency to sound complacent, rather than build to any climax or help the tunes gain momentum.
Some of the more traditional numbers come off a bit better, like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and "The Second Line." Strangely, Sonny Rollin's "Oleo" shifts gears with relative success, relocating somewhere between a jolly second-line beat and a shuffle. It's unusual, if nothing else. Still, all in all, the project should be considered a failed experiment.