[Updated] The collaboration between alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Cobham blossomed into something more during a 2002 tour featuring Harrison, Carter, and Cobham with the late pianist James Williams. 2004’s Heroes is an extraordinarily reflective and intimate affair, interspersing three artful Harrison-Carter duets between a series of Harrison and Carter compositions. It’s topped by a saxophone-bass duet on Miles Davis’ “Solar.”
New York Cool (2005) and the new This Is Jazz, recorded in the New York jazz club The Blue Note, reflect the setting of big-city jazz played for a big-city audience. Harrison dominates New York Cool, trading extended solos with Carter on a sumptuously syncopated version of the jazz standard “Body and Soul,” then taking off on a series of dazzling displays of saxophone virtuosity with his own “Harrisburg Address,” the soulful ballad “Easy Living,” and a pair of Don Raye-Gene DePaul pop hits from the 1940s, “I’ll Remember April” and “Star Eyes,” followed by Carter’s “Third Plane,” and Harrison’s soul-drenched “Blues for Happy People.”
This Is Jazz more accurately reflects the meditative and quietly swinging vibe established on Heroes, with Carter’s compositions and fluid, resonating bass featured heavily for much of the first half, especially on an unbelievable six-minute solo on “You Are My Sunshine,” which quietly walks its way into an 11-minute exploration of “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Unfortunately, the producers of the CD open the proceedings with Carter’s “Cut & Paste,” a deliberately disjointed composition that’s followed by his far mellower “MSRP,” an acronym for “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.” Harrison takes over midway through “Seven Steps” and follows with an almost-sleepy ballad tempo on “I Can’t Get Started, a jazz standard written for the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies. “Tremé Swagger,” a composition attributed to all three members of the trio, features bold, bebopish turns by each.
Hopefully, there will be further adventures in the Harrison-Cobham-Carter saga, but even these three compelling chapters prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Donald Harrison has earned his place in the first rank of jazz alto saxophonists and jazz session leaders—an achievement too often neglected in the cloistered world of mainstream jazz journalism and amidst the boisterous musical riches of his own hometown.
Updated September 29, 10:22 a.m.
Harrison plays alto sax, not tenor as initially written. The text has been changed to correct this.