Tuesday, March 8, 2011
RUFUS HARLEY: A Tribute to Courage
So here’s something I’m a sucker for: funky soul/jazz laid confidently down by total pros cutting loose. It’s 1967 and Rufus Harley is recording his third album for Atlantic Records. He’s got a vision, he’s got a great lineup of players, and he’s got his set of bagpipes.
And there’s another thing for which your humble narrator is a born-every-minute: unconventional instrumentation in jazz. You know those beautiful Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane records where the harp becomes the funkiest thing known to man? Who would have guessed? If that can work, I don’t see why the bagpipes are any different.
And Rufus delivers, right? On the eye-bulging opener “Sunny” it is pure joy to hear him charge through those funky congas, piano, bass and drums like a bleating badass. That particular song has a bouncing-around-the-room quality I can’t resist. Excellent. Well-played, gentlemen. Off to a great start.
Next up, the title track opens like a rousing spiritual-jazz hymn (complete with “Yes, Lord!”) and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear Alice Coltrane drop in for a bit with her shimmering harp. That doesn’t happen, though. This is a Rufus Harley album, so it’s a solo on the bagpipes. And here’s the first sign of trouble: The notes are perfectly selected and the accompaniment is dynamic and sympathetic, but bagpipes are simply incapable of anything resembling vibrato or dynamics. Notes trail off until a sudden stop or a leap into the next note and every one is blasted out with an identical timbre. It’s actually kind of a relief when the pipes take a rest and Oliver Collins delivers a skillful piano solo.
The following rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is kind of middling. “Amazing Grace” is so often played by kilt-wearing bagpipers, so why not this one? Rufus Harley makes it work pretty well, against all odds, but I’m not requesting it for my Viking funeral.
The second half of the record is actually stronger than the first, in no small part because Harley puts down the pipes to pick up some woodwinds. He’s really good! “Ali” swings and pops around a slightly cluttered but very soulful flute solo. “X” winds around a spazzing, staccato sax line, and “About Trane” is a worthy tribute to the oft-tributed Saint John of the Tenor. It's all classic stuff - not quite A Love Supreme, but what is?
I feel bad saying it, but this album’s big draw is a pretty ineffective gimmick. When an employee at Detroit’s People’s Records (tangent: people who work in record stores are usually insufferable snobs, but the fine gentlemen at People’s Records should be commended for their kindness and impeccable recommendations) excitedly told me about Rufus Harley, two things stood out: a) Rufus was compared to Dorothy Ashby (prompting a mental “yes, please” from this eager jazzophile) and b) “BAGPIPES!”
As good as it is, there isn't a lot to distingush this record from thousands like it other than the bagpipes, and they are the weakest link. Kudos to Rufus Harley for blazing his own trail. That’s something I admire. And the bagpipe performances here are far from a failure, they are just not as exciting as the music he makes when he chooses a more conventional axe. The bagpipes are the least expressive instrument designed by human hands.
For those keeping score: The opening track and all of side two are terrific. Keep an eye peeled for a copy of this album, just don’t scale Kilimanjaro for it.