Drummer extraordinaire Winard Harper led his jazz band the Winard Harper Sextet through two hours of great music, that featured standards and original compositions-and that was just the first set. Playing before an appreciative audience at West Broadway’s The Jazz Cellar in Vancouver, the sextet was nothing short of marvelous, and after each solo performance, the patrons applauded them. At other times, the audience broke into spontaneous applause to spur their new found heroes onto even greater heights.
Prior to forming a scintillating band with his brother Philip in the late 1980’s, and then embarking on a career fronting his own ensemble, Harper shared the stage with such notable performers as Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Pharoah Sanders and Clifford Jordan. The Harper Brothers Quintet’s sophomore project Remembrance (1991) went all the way to # 1 on Billboard’s jazz charts.
The Winard Harper Sextet opened their first set with the standard "Sentimental." Pianist Sean Higgins was elegant, as he stroked the keys, and bassist Ameen Saleem, although playing in pizzicato fashion, was so silky smooth he appeared to be caressing the four strings versus plucking them. For his part, Harper alternated playing with brushes, sticks and mallets, sometimes with one of each at the same time.
The sextet smoothly segued into "Alone Together," before moving into "Float Like A Butterfly." Higgins visited most of the octaves on his keyboard, while Harper made full use of his drum kit including, elbow on the crash cymbal, when he ran out of hands. Harper is a man who has fun with his gigs, often flashing a broad smile during a song, or as he did on several occasions during improvisations, uttering exclamations such as "nice". At other times, he just laughed as he reveled in the sextet’s chemistry.
As wonderful a musician as Winard Harper is, he does not hesitate to share the limelight with the other members of his sextet, often drawing attention to their talent, and providing numerous open sections for them to solo. During the Bobby Timmons’ song "Moanin’" twenty-two year old trumpeter, Josh Evans stunned the audience with his spectacular playing. Tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard was equal to the task with his solo, while later in the song there was an opportunity for Higgins to once again show off his keyboard chops. "Moanin’" began with a call and response, Evans’ trumpet issuing the call and the rest of the musicians responding. The song ended in a similar fashion only with the pianist issuing the call, while the other instrumentalists responded. "Moanin’" was originally recorded by Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. Due to the popularity of the song, the album was renamed to reflect the song’s title.
At one point during the first set, the Winard Harper Sextet played a piece that at first only utilized percussion instruments, before adding the bass, which provided a steady drone. Eventually the drum kit and piano were phased in. We should take this opportunity to recognize the talents of the multi-talented percussionist David Fraser. Fraser played the shakers, an ashiko, (cousin to the djembe), what appeared to be the Nigerian udu and numerous other African percussion instruments.
Harper introduced the second set by playing "Happy Birthday" to a member of the audience and spent time chatting with various patrons. The languid and mellow opening bars of the original composition "Divine Surveillance," from his current CD Make It Happen began another foray into more delicious grooves. The song then transitioned into a rapid trumpet solo, followed by melancholy horns.
The evening closed out with Charlie Parker’s bebop tune "Segment," and the Harper original composition "Elite State Of Mind," which featured Dillard’s tenor sax.
August 21-22, the Winard Harper Sextet will be performing in Seattle at Dimitrious’ Jazz Alley, August 23, at California’s Downtown Berkley Jazz Festival (noon-1:30 pm) and September 7-8 at the Lenox Lounge in New York City. In addition on September 1, the Winard Harper Sextet will be participating in the free, Music Festival In The Park at Lincoln Park, Jersey City, New Jersey.