It could be said that alto saxophonist Donald Harrison ably navigates the gray boundary of postbop, soul-jazz and funk. It could also be said that Harrison has spent too much time trying to convince us that his “nouveau swing” concept is an artistically valuable progression of jazz and too little time developing his own voice.
Harrison, a solid musician who lacks a distinctive style, has served admirably as a sideman over the years and has delivered some solid recordings of his own. The Survivor isn’t one of them. The idea here is to demonstrate that hip-hop rhythms can be woven into the fabric of jazz. But when most of your tunes run eight and nine minutes, you’d damn well better mix things up. Unfortunately, pianist Mulgrew Miller (who deserves better than this), bassist Luques Curtis and drummer John Lamkin are fenced in most of the time.
Even on the very cool, laid-back hip-hop tune “Twerk It,” the monotonous drumming and unchanging piano lines bore to tears. Really, why not have machines stand in for the rhythm section and blow to your heart’s content? Ah yes, Boney James already does that.
The update of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” is a complete mess: Harrison blowing non sequiturs over a hip-hop beat, sampled voice and record scratching of the variety that went out of fashion when Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” dropped off the charts.
Despite all of this, Miller does get a few inspired licks in when he’s not playing loops. And some of Harrison’s work is thoughtful and imaginative, though an equal amount of it is rote and repetitive. In fact, he’s upstaged in his own quintet by the teenage trumpeter Christian Scott, who happens to be his nephew. Come to think of it, Scott found a more compelling (and concise) formula for integrating contemporary rhythms with jazz a few months ago in his own debut album, Rewind That. Uncle Donald might want to give it another listen.