Craig Harris: Brown Butterfly (Afro Future Concept)

A review of the trombonist's tribute album for Muhammad Ali

Brown Butterfly by Craig Harris
The cover of Brown Butterfly by Craig Harris

If ever there was an ideal candidate for a jazz tribute, it’s Muhammad Ali. His boxing style was jazz poetry in motion, of course, but he was also a living signifier of black pride—a man whose resistance in the face of racism and imperialist American arrogance defined his era and his legacy every bit as strongly as his heroics in the ring. Trombonist Craig Harris is an appropriate choice to spearhead such a tribute. Aside from his internationally recognized gifts as a composer and musician, Harris’ work has long been characterized by an activist, Afrocentric thrust. It’s notable that several of his collaborators, including Sun Ra and Lester Bowie, have been both revolutionary voices and artful humorists, as was Ali himself.

This suite consists of 21 sketches, most of which limn important events and periods in Ali’s life. They’re not in chronological order: “Rumble in the Land of Lumumba,” which concerns the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, is the third entry; “Liston-Ali in Miami,” No. 12 in the suite, pays tribute to the 1964 match that garnered young Cassius Clay his championship belt, which he’d wear until being stripped of it three years later for refusing induction into the military (an episode recalled in “Conscientious Stance Dance,” which melds Ali’s defiance, playfulness, and courage into one inextricable whole).

These recordings are richly impressionistic. Beats, melodies, and riffs mimic the contrapuntal quickness of Ali’s feet and fists, tempered and enriched by the rich-toned solo work of Harris as well as Jay Rodriguez on saxophone and flute and Eddie Allen on trumpet. Special note should be taken of poets Abiodun Oyewole (“The People’s Choice,” “Boma Ye”) and Ngoma Hill (“The G.O.A.T.”), whose verses both enrich this project and buttress its message, feting Ali’s stature in our culture as a font of hope and inspiration.

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.