Billy Harper approaches the tenor saxophone the way his Methodist minister grandfather might have approached the pulpit: he thunders and cajoles with messianic zeal, and as he sings praises he swings like hell. Along with Jan Garbarek and George Adams, the Houston-born Harper was one of a troika of 70s tenor men who managed to craft unique styles under the influence of John Coltrane. Hordes of players since have honed malleable but ultimately metallic timbres in Trane’s name, but Harper’s sound, built from woods and earth tones, brings him closer than anyone else to the gorgeous complexities of the master’s saxophonic voice. Coltrane’s technique also provides the foundation for the careering cascades of Harper’s solos, but even as far back as the early 70s, when Harper established himself as the principal tenor soloist in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, he was distinguished by his intense lyricism. His strong artistic and political convictions have for the most part kept him off American record labels: last year’s blistering Soul of an Angel (Metropolitan), the 16th album under Harper’s name, is only his second for a stateside label since 1973. Chicagoans have had a number of opportunities to hear him anyway–local trumpeter Malachi Thompson has brought Harper to town maybe half a dozen times in recent years to play with his Freebop Band. But we haven’t had a chance to hear his tenor erupt out of a full ensemble the way it did in Thad Jones’s arrangements in the 70s, at least not until now. This year’s Marshall Vente Jazz Festival, named for the indefatigable composer, arranger, radio host, and promoter, features Harper in two sets by Vente’s Project 9, performing new music commissioned in anticipation of the saxist’s participation. With the addition of tuba and an extra percussionist, the lineup is 12 strong for these shows–still not as big as the Jones-Lewis Orchestra, but under Vente’s direction, it should serve as a more than adequate launching pad. Saturday, 9 PM, and Sunday, 3 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 630-942-4200 or 312-670-2473.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.