Tenor saxophonist George Adams died in 1992, and reclusive Norwegian tenor and soprano player Jan Garbarek rarely makes albums or tours anymore. So of the three tenor saxists who emerged in the 70s to spin distinct styles out of the legacy of John Coltrane, only Billy Harper still has any sort of a presence. But what a presence it is: he’s a Texas-born tornado given to intense but lyrical improvisations. Chicagoans have had more chances than most to hear Harper, at least since the late 90s, when trumpeter Malachi Thompson started bringing him in from New York for major engagements. But nobody anywhere has had much opportunity to hear him in the sort of context that launched his career, his tenor soaring above a full-throated big-band arrangement, as when he was a young soloist with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. That’s a shame, as it suits Harper especially well: the broad palette of big-band writing can supply the woods and earth tones that highlight his sound, as well as the power to support or buffet his dervish solos. Enter Marshall Vente, the juggernaut pianist, composer-arranger, bandleader, and producer-emcee of the tenth annual four-day jazz festival bearing his name. A longtime admirer of Harper’s work, Vente also missed hearing the saxist in a big-band format and set out to fix the problem: after gauging Harper’s interest, he wrote a series of charts designed around Harper for his Project 9 band, debuting them at the 2001 Marshall Vente Jazz Festival and reprising the performance nine months later at the Chicago Jazz Festival. This weekend marks the third consecutive year Vente has written an entirely new program for Harper; this installment includes an arrangement of one of the saxist’s most impressive pieces from the 70s, “Cry of Hunger.” Harper and Project 9 will appear Saturday night (with Joanie Pallatto and Sparrow & the Machine Band) and Sunday afternoon (with the Judy Roberts Group, featuring Jackie Allen and Greg Fishman), following Friday night’s all-tropical show, starring the spectacular Brazilian pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano. Saturday, January 18, 8:30 PM, and Sunday, January 19, 3 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.