The Morse Theatre in Rogers Park finally opens its doors tonight with a concert by the Winard Harper Sextet; Taj Mahal follows with a two-night stand. The new 299-seat venue—the result of a $6 million renovation of a 96-year-old building, whose setbacks included a suspected arson on August 10—has already announced a promising slate of concerts that indicates it could partly fill the void left by HotHouse’s closing, and may as well fill in the large gaps in jazz and folk/country programming offered by places like the Jazz Showcase and the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Drummer Harper, pictured, rode the cresting wave of the so-called “young lions” of neo-conservative jazz in the late 80s. He started out as a sideman with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, and Johnny Griffin, but in the combo he co-led with his trumpet-playing brother Philip, the Harper Brothers, he gained widespread attention.
That group disbanded after five years, in 1993, and since then Harper has balanced his sideman work with his own band. The sextet he brings to Chicago tonight has been active for a decade, although its membership has undergone many changes. Their latest album Make it Happen (Piadrum, 2006) is billed as a quintet outing, but there are so many guest players it’s hard to hear it that way. A slew of percussionists accent the music with African instruments like talking drum, conga, sabar, and djembe, along with Harper’s own balafon playing, but the group never really surrenders its hard bop heart. Only the record’s bassist Ameen Saleem is playing with Harper tonight; the lineup is rounded out by pianist Jon Notar, trumpeter Bruce Harris, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and percussionist Jean Marie Collatin.