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Bebop is reborn on 'Nouveau Swing' by Donald Harrison

By Nicky Baxter

It's tempting to make fun of anyone whose nickname is Donald "Duck." But when that someone's surname is Harrison, you'd be wise to sit up and listen to anything he says--or more precisely in this instance, plays.

Donald Harrison emerged from same group of New Orleans' musicians that in the 1980s spearheaded the bebop revival, but the saxophonist has carved out an approach that occasionally transgresses the sometimes stifling strictures of neoconservativism.

Nouveau Swing (Impulse!) finds the saxophonist spicing up the bop pot with percolating skanky Jamaican/Caribbean pop, Crescent City funk, gutter-low blues and even hip-hopped jazz.

Perhaps as much as any tune, "Bob Marley" epitomizes the album's refusal to accept borders. The title spells out what Harrison and his confederates are up to, and few will be disappointed by the results. That's no surprise considering the rhythm section, which hails from Saint Thomas. Ruben Rogers' plangent, burbling reggae bass pulse is insistent without sounding overbearing. Dion Parson clip-clops like a seasoned reggae veteran on the drums, even while working over his high-hat with a jazz player's know-how.

Harrison, meanwhile, allows his alto to waft calmly over the simmering rhythms. Initially, he pays tribute to the late reggae superstar in hushed tones; by the song's conclusion, however, Harrison's sobbing obligatos leave little doubt as to the heartfelt connection he feels with Marley.

On Ron Carter's "Eighty-One," Harrison navigates the Caribbean from a different perspective, this time employing a samba-based approach. Again, the Rogers/Parson rhythm unit is present (elsewhere the bass/drum tandem of Christian McBride and Carl Allen assumes command of the beat). Harrison's tone oozes "Girl From Ipanema" romance, demonstrating the panache of a player twice his age (he's not yet reached his 40s).

Bop Forever

Harrison, however, has not bumped bop from his list of favorite things. "Come Back Jack" and "One of a Kind" offer incontestable evidence that he will always and forever be a fan of the music Charlie Parker made.

"Jack" is an especially choice cut of old-school blowing updated for contemporary consumption. Penned by a member of the New Orleans' funk band the Meters, the tune is juiced by the roiling multidirectional syncopations of that city's hard-core R&B tradition, thanks primarily to McBride's outrageously inventive bass lines, quoting a "Cool Period" Miles Davis tune one moment, striding with a cocksure bounce the next. Allen, meanwhile is an unrelenting beat-keeper, spinning off tightly wound fills when he's not slapping away at the cymbals.

On Nouveau Swing, Harrison proves he's no young/wannabe old fogy. The title track is a sly reference to Digable Planet's hit "Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat)," which samples a bass line from a dusty Art Blakey ditty.

By shifting the groove-emphatic bass line of "Rebirth of the Slick" to a jazzier pattern, Harrison and company bring the music full circle. Not that the tune is devoid of soul. Allen's kick-drum and snare work reeks of funk fever.

Harrison's alto playing is fluid here as throughout informed by a mainstream musician's keen ear for accessibility. His "Swing" won't challenge, say, Anthony Braxton's intricate compositions, but chances are you'll find yourself popping your fingers.

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Web extra to the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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