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March 2009

Billy Harper
Blueprints of Jazz Vol. 2
Talking House

There’s darkness brewing on Blueprints of Jazz Vol. 2 (which tenor saxophonist Billy Harper had titled Amazing Grace before it joined Talking House’s series of lesser-known jazz pacesetters). The album is a tableau of Harper’s spiritual jazz, bookended with Amiri Baraka poems on the music’s evolution in both America and Africa. When it’s on point, Blueprints is brilliant; when it’s off, it just misses the mark.

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Billy Harper

The brilliant part comes when the album is fraught with tension, whether between Harper’s adenoidal sheets of sound and Keyon Harrold’s gleaming trumpet bursts (“Cast the First Stone?”), the horn players’ lines and pianist Francesca Tanksley’s stormy chords (“Time and Time Again”), or even the ensemble and Baraka’s booming speech (“Oh…If Only”). Not only does it provide foils all around, but it gives the album an aura of deadly seriousness: “Another Kind of Thoroughbred,” for example, opens with a gripping minor-key fanfare, played by Harper and Harrold in unison, whose urgency suggests everything depends on hearing it through—and it delivers on that promise. As well, the double bass team of Clarence Seay and Louie Spears begins several songs (notably the opening “Africa Revisited”) with pounding intros that give ominous color to the music.

Harper is less convincing, however, on ballads. He sounds ponderous on “Knowledge of Self,” and his improvised vocal delivery on “Amazing Grace” is curiously detached from the hymn’s joyful lyric. These missteps, however, merely reduce Blueprints to “near excellent” status. It’s well worth acquiring.

Originally published in March 2009
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