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Billy Harper: Soul of an Angel

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It’s puzzling that Billy Harper rarely records for American labels. Despite nearly 30 years of impressive recordings with his own bands and those of Gil Evans, Max Roach, Art Blakey and others, this is only his third domestic label release in three decades. Fortunately, the 57-year-old Texas tenor makes the most of every opportunity to sharpen his playing, composing and band leading skills on Soul of an Angel.

Like Sam Rivers and the late George Adams, Harper can play inside and outside of harmonic changes and tempos. On his opening original, “Thine Is the Glory,” both Harper and trumpeter Eddie Henderson offer up prayerful shouts that are sure to stir the congregation. Another spiritual theme is heard on Harper’s hip arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which is structurally transformed and reharmonized almost beyond recognition. Guest soloist John Clark testifies with an adventurous French-horn solo on Harper’s “Let All Voices Sing,” based on James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Perhaps the strongest original melody here is the jazz waltz title track, notable also for a brief tenor/drum duet that finds Harper exploring an intervallic call and response with himself.

Harper’s longtime rhythm section-pianist Francesca Tanksley, bassist Clarence Seay and drummer Newman Taylor Baker-really dig in on the tricky, hyper swinger “Was It Here? Is It There?” Note of caution to musicians who try to play this one: Take your cell with you in case you get lost.