ANNIVERSARIES: Jazz bagpipes great Rufus Harley born 70 years ago

rufusharley.jpgBorn May 20, 1936 in Raleigh, NC, of African-American and Cherokee descent, Rufus Harley is unique. The turning point of the longtime Philadelphia-area resident's career was the November 1963 funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Harley, then a promising young jazz saxophonist, was fascinated by the bagpipes heard on that solemn day when the regimental pipers of the Black Watch (a Scottish infantry division of the British Army) played in the funeral procession. He went looking for bagpipes, and finally found a set in a New York pawnshop for $120. He made four treasured albums for Atlantic in 1965-70 (Bagpipe Blues, Scotch and Soul, Tribute to Courage, Kings and Queens) and had cameos on albums by Sonny Stitt, Herbie Mann, and Sonny Rollins. More recently he's been heard on fellow Philadelphians The Roots' Do You Want More?!!!??!

(Harley is a much-loved character on the Philly scene and plays every Tuesday night at the 23rd St. Cafe). Of course, though lovers of novelty have long noted Harley's unique contribution to jazz, it's a bit of a hard sell to a mainstream audience. Until this past Tuesday (5/16), he'd had none of his classic albums on CD (The Pied Piper of Jazz, a 2000 compilation on the short-lived archival jazz budget imprint Label M, drew on Harley's Atlantic work; that out-of-print CD now sells for $75), though some recent self-productions are available.

But now Harley's 1972 album on the little Ankh label, Re-Creation of the Gods, has been reissued by Transparency (which I'll guess is new based on the fact that the disc came with a card saying that its website is still under construction. A little advice for them: put the track listing somewhere besides on the CD itself -- can't read that while it's playing). I don't have the rare LP, so I can't see for myself, but the track listings I've seen for it don't exactly match what's here. Discographical issues aside, though, the music is a must-hear. This album is as much psychedelic funk as jazz (though some tracks on Harley's Atlantic LPs hit quite a groove too, including a notorious cover of The Byrds' psychedelic classic "Eight Miles High"). With a backbeat heavy enough for P-Funk and enough organ to drown a gospel choir, it could become a hot item in certain circles right now, where funky soul jazz is experiencing a vigorous reincarnation in the wake of hip remixers recycling obscure but hard-grooving platters.

Recorded live, with what sounds like a different lineup than on the studio tracks, "The Crack" is vamp with eerie synthesizer instead of organ. "The Re-creation of the Gods" is just a brief bagpipes solo ending with a drone (yeah, when bagpipes are involved, drones will be common) under a loop of a baby crying. "Nobody Knows the Trouble Us People Done Seen" starts with Harley's parodically over-the-top sermon spoken intro (the overwrought title is a good indication of its flavor), but then comes a thrilling version of the gospel standard "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" that any fan of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's version of "The Old Rugged Cross" will dig. Organist Bill Mason gets some well-deserved time in the spotlight on this one, and Larry Langston drums up a storm.

The intensity drops when Harley switches to electric soprano saxophone for what's called "This Little Light of Mine," though it's very slow and doesn't sound like the gospel classic of that title (at the start, it recalls "Wade in the Water"). Things pick up again with "Hypothesis," which finds the bagpipes speaking the modal-jazz language of John Coltrane, but with a good bashing groove. It's back to heavy funk on "Gods and Goddesses," made even heavier by the electric bass of Larry Randolph. The closing "Etymology," also with Randolph, and with Harley back on electric soprano sax, is a hard-driving 12/8 excursion with a prog-rock flavor.

Traditional bagpipers mostly can't stand this stuff because Harley, self-taught, doesn't make the instrument sound the way they think it should sound. We don't have to worry about that, and can appreciate this imaginative music for what it is. It may have novelty value, but it's much more than that. This disc can be enjoyed by all adventurous jazz and groove fans. - Steve Holtje

 Rufus Harley With Georges Arvanitas Trio sholtje.jpg

 

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.

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