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Wendell Harrison : It’s About Damn Time

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Listen to the funked-up take on Clifford Brown’s “Dahoud,” or the hip-hop- and soul-flavored “Love Juice,” and one thing becomes clear: This set showcases reedist Wendell Harrison’s non-elitist aesthetics. He’s been criticized for this eclecticism, and occasionally his juxtapositions can sound forced. (“Love Juice,” with its raw, sexual lyrical content over a background that skews quiet storm, is a main offender.) For the most part, though, the musical and emotional integrity here makes this journey more exhilarating than jarring.

Damon Warmack’s funk basslines set an appropriately streetsy mood for Harrison, who borrows a few JBs-like licks along the way to emphasize the point. His tenor saxophone tone is clean and often mellow but he coarsens it when appropriate, and his percussive phrasing accentuates toughness and grit, especially on funkified workouts like “Urban Expressions.” Guitarist Vaughn Klugh’s slag-metal solos sometimes approach rocked-out overkill, but his Johnny Heartsman-like moans and soul chording provide atmospheric, full-bodied support for his compatriots’ frontline work.

Several offerings here recast creations originally recorded with synthesized rhythm tracks: “Pojo,” “Urban Expression” and “Lord Not Another Lover” were included on Harrison’s Urban Expression in 2004, and the sensual thrust and creative spark of flesh-and-blood percussionists (Dan Schmatz, Gayelynn McKinney) improves things immensely. (Elsewhere, drummer Djallo Djakate propels “Dahoud” and the funk ballad “Take Time Out,” which features vocalist Linda Boston.)

Wendell Harrison, who turns 69 in October, has obviously retained a young man’s sense of exploration and adventure, even as his muse has been enriched by wisdom and experience-to say nothing of the righteous struggles for justice he’s been involved with over the years. The range he displays here-from the alley into the bistro; from uncompromisingly adult jazz sophistication to pop-sheened ironic detachment-is sometimes challenging. But for listeners with big ears, it’s more than worth the effort.

Originally Published