Nu Civilization Orchestra – Parallel: A tribute to Joe Harriott
(Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, Saturday Nov 17th, 7.45pm. LJF. Preview by Jon Turney)
Zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways. Science sees more simultaneous discoveries than can be easily explained. Music, too, finds players striving for similar goals even though they haven’t discussed them.
The titles of the coruscating Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott’s key recordings, Free Form (1960) and Abstract (1962) declared his determination to get beyond be-bop to something freer from ready-made structure. That idea, it’s often said, resembled the explorations around that time of Ornette Coleman’s first quartets. The results, not so much. Harriott was less interested in pure melody than Coleman, more in shifting ensemble textures,and his quintet featured a piano alongside sax and trumpet. But he still drew heavily on the vocabulary of blues, be-bop and Caribbean music. The results now sound so accessible – here the comparison with Coleman does work – that it’s hard to credit how radical they once seemed.
Ornette, praise the powers, is still performing. Harriott’s career ended with his early death in 1973. His work is more talked about than listened to – though some later free players such as Ken Vandermark have explored his compositions. Now the Nu Civilisation orchestra, one of bassist Gary Crosby’s remarkable stream of projects, reinvent them completely, to startling effect.
The quintet pieces from the two recordings have been re-worked for the eleven-piece orchestra by pianist, arranger and conductor Peter Edwards. In Bristol recently, they were heard as a prodigious 90-minute suite, with Harriott’s pieces interspersed with new work by Edwards inspired by him. In London, we may hope, there will be an intermission – it was a lot to take in all at once. But it was absolutely worth the effort.
Complex arrangements full of interesting twists and turns, and fine soloing from the likes of Nathaniel Facey, Byron Wallen and Will Gibson, give a new lease of life to a great musician’s best work. The show is part of a larger programme of events put together by Crosby and his cohorts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. It is also, along with the concerts by visiting superstars in larger halls, exactly the kind of thing jazz festivals are about.