Church Of Sound has established a name for itself by championing many of the young upcoming UK jazz acts.
However, their upcoming gig is something quite different. For their next pair of shows on May 24th and 25th they are flying a bunch of jazz legends over from New York City to come play in St James the Great Church in East London. The band goes by the name of The Cookers and reads like who’s who of American jazz royalty (more info and advance tickets here: https://bit.ly/2HHOsPO).
For this playlist, I chose to focus on saxophonist Billy Harper, whose compositions form a substantial chunk of The Cookers’ set. Not only is he one hell of musician, he is also one of the most inspiring human beings whose musical integrity has pushed to reach out to specialized independent labels all over the world to keep his music alive, and as raw as he likes it. Research into his life in music unveils a world filled with jazz fanatics that helped him record, release and play his music live.
Liner notes on his records helped map out his career as he moved away from the US to play and record in places like Denmark, Poland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia and beyond. One question you might ask yourself: why would Billy Harper move away from NYC in the early 70’s, the birthplace of be-bop, the sound that got him on the scene in the first place?
America is good at cherishing new and exciting new forms of music, but not so much with its heritage music. Having started his career in 1960’s New York City, doing sessions for incredible artists such as Lee Morgan, Bobbi Humphrey, Art Blakey and Pharoah Sanders, Harper started writing and releasing his own music in the early 70’s - his first album came out on NYC’s legendary artist-run label, Strata East.
However, when synthesizers, wah wah pedals and jazz-fusion became THE thing in the 70’s, artists who kept their sound acoustic just ceased to be supported in the same way. This made it hard for quite a few legends of the genre. The Big Apple is an unforgiving place and many musicians found themselves with a choice: either follow the trend and electrify your sound or stayed true to your art which would probably mean get a day job to get by.
Quite a few musicians went for the third option: move across the ocean to more hospitable grounds. For example, Denmark was a pretty groovy place to be in the 70’s as US musician expat. Countless jazz cats relocated in Copenhagen for example, where the label Steeple Chase was created in 1972, set up by Nils Winther, a jazz head who saw an opportunity in recording live sessions from in his local venue.
Going through Billy Harper’s discography is like following his travels as he follows labels that allowed him to keep his craft alive, and the journey is punctuated by fascinating jazz labels, from the US to Japan via mainland Europe.
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'Capra Black' was Billy Harper’s first album as a leader and was released on the legendary independent label Strata East in 1973. Harper had spent the years prior to this release making a place for himself in the New York hard bop scene playing with people like Lee Morgan, Max Roach, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones.
In a recent interview on New York City’s Lot radio, Billy tells the story of his first encounter with Elvin. When Harper was first coming up in the scene, he tried to join Elvin Jones on stage. He was quickly rejected by a drunk and moody Jones, but after trying three times he finally got a break!
'Capra Black', the composition, was picked up by Lee Morgan for his last ever session for Blue Note, where Harper himself features heavily.
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'Believe, For It Is True' - From ‘The Believer’ (Baystate / 1980)
Recorded in NYC in 1980 but produced and released by the Japanese label Baystate. Japan has always had a taste for the deepest sounds and the emotionally charged compositions in jazz. The developments of Jazz Kissa after WWII, these cafes where you could go and listen to the freshest new releases coming out of the United States on an audiophile sound system, played a key role in forging the ears of future producers of talents.
One of them was Yoshio Ozawa who produced a few albums with Harper like the incredible ‘Knowledge Of Self’ as well as seminal albums with Marion Brown, Herbie Hancock, Archie Shepp, Frank Foster…
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'Call Of The Wild And Peaceful Heart' (Recorded at the Studio Barclay in Paris in July 21st -22nd, 1975 - released in the Italian label Black Saint)
With the release ‘Black Saint’ , Billy Harper helped launch the Italy-based Black Saint jazz label. The label was devoted to recording avant-garde musicians who might not have an opportunity elsewhere, taking the opportunity to make albums with the bands that would pass through Milan on their travels.
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'Soran Bushi B.H'
Recorded December, 1977 in NYC, it came out on the label Denon (yes, same brand as the audio equipment company). This version seems to have only come out in Japan as a CD, but thanks to Youtube here it is before your ears.
This track was also recorded in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia for the Danish label SteepleChase and another time at the Warsaw Congress Hall during the Jambore Jazz festival, for the government owned label PolJazz .
The latter, formerly known as the Polish Jazz Association started in 1969 as an organization led by concert organizers, promoters and jazz critics .Their goals included creating an archive of jazz recordings and coordinating the work of clubs. They were also responsible for publishing of the ‘Jazz Forum’ magazine. For the first few years of its existence, the new releases were distributed only to members of a PSJ record club (!).
Fortunately it later developed into a more widely distributed label.
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'Love On The Sudan' (Recorded March 3rd and 4th, 1979 at Tonstudio Zuckerfabrik, Stuttgart, Germany)
The album this track is from , ‘Trying To Make Heaven My Home’ was produced and released by the label MPS (Music Production Black Forest). This independent label started in the late 60’s, working with a lot of international jazz artists like Alphonse Mouzon, Lee Konitz, Jean Luc Ponty…
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'Water Bridge' - Mizu Hashi San (Billy Harper & Jon Faddis )
I found this record in a shop in Paris, I remember playing it on the shop’s speakers and being blown away by how deep that cut was. When I looked around, all the heads in the shop came to ask and look at that record, I knew this one was extra special!
It was recorded in Tokyo in 1974 for the label Trio Records. This Japanese label, which has some amazing jazz numbers, was established by the audio manufacturer Trio Electronics, Inc., later known as known as Kenwood.
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'Priestess' (Recorded January 24th and 25th, 1979 in Milan)
The Billy Harper Quintet In Europe appeared as the first release from the Soul Note label, a co-label of Milan's other avant-garde label, Black Saint, in 1979.
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This composition by Billy Harper was first recorded on his ‘Black Saint’ album. This classic waltz was also picked up by Lee Morgan and recorded on his last album.
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Billy Harper will play in the Church Of Sound as part of The Crookers on May 24th and 25th. More info and advance tickets here: https://bit.ly/2HHOsPO
Words: Alexis Blondin
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