Son of a Big Chief
Donald Harrison Jr. got his break in 1982 when the alto saxophonist and his trumpet-playing sidekick, Terence Blanchard, joined the front line of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. A graduate of NOCCA and student of Ellis Marsalis’, Harrison carried the rhythms of a Mardi Gras Indian background to Berklee School of Music in Boston, then to Blakey’s band and recordings with Blanchard before settling into the odyssey yet unfolding.
His father and namesake was Big Chief of Guardians of the Flame, a Downtown Carnival tribe. In the early 1990s the elder Harrison and several Guardians joined Donald Jr. and Dr. John in studio sessions that led to Indian Blue, a CD on the Candid label, one of the truly great recordings in the New Orleans canon. Harrison’s sinuous reed lines weave through Mac Rebennack’s slang-studded lyrics and the pulsing syncopations on keyboard, with Indian chants in rich chorus. I’m not sure when Indian Blue went out of issue or why such a great piece of music is no longer in commerce. But then, the purity of the recording industry ranks with political attack ads and mob weddings as a reflecting pool on the dark side of America’s dream.
So it was with rare elation that I came across a listing for a CD titled Big Chief in, of all places, a Daedalus Books and Music catalog that came in the mail. There was the advertisement for Donald Harrison playing Mardi Gras Indian music at a cost of $4.95. Whoa! I placed the order by phone on the spot. The recording arrived a few days later with the old man and Dr. John and all the other sidemen from that ’92 disc, now on the Past Perfect Silver Line label and including the title cut of the older CD, albeit with a plural: “Indian Blues.”
Other songs are erroneously titled, such as “Hiko, Hiko” instead of “Iko Iko,” perhaps reflecting the enthusiasm of a Japanese reissue label. The material on this CD comes from the original Indian Blue sessions, recorded in New York in 1991, providing a showcase for Harrison’s poetic range on alto and tenor saxophone.
A tune called “Shave ’Em Dry” is credited to B.C. Jolly – meaning Big Chief Jolley (credit writers always misspell that name). The tune in question is an old blues rendition about a monkey playing pool with a baboon in a honky-tonk that Chief Jolley, in his non-Carnival incarnation as George Landry, sang on piano. The tag line on the refrain was, “Hey now, shave ’em dry,” whose interpretations we shall leave to deconstructionists.
Harrison Jr. rolls through the standards of Mardi Gras Indian music with his father’s chants and Dr. John’s peerless keyboard work all of a piece. All this should be seen as a cultural product across time. The flow of this idiom from coded Creole chants of generations past reached wax in 1976 when the Neville Brothers went into SeaSaint Studio with their uncle, Big Chief Jolley, their sidekicks from the Meters and several members of the gang that Jolley led. That recording, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, quickly became a classic, with the chief’s warm bravura vocals on tunes such as “Indian Red” setting a standard that three decades later, the Mardi Gras gangs are still emulating.
Harrison Jr. takes the melodic essence of Landry’s vocals into another direction with sax lines that use the second-line beat as a touchstone, shifting into improvisations that feed off the keyboard work by Rebennack in a kind of duet dynamic: Rebennack’s singing, Harrison’s instrumental honking. If you didn’t know the bed of musical sources beneath this, it might seem quite the hybrid. In fact, the music is anything but. Rebennack has been working and reworking the Indian chants for years; the stronger the players with him on a given gig or recording, the more dazzling the renditions.
Harrison surrounds the melodies with the force of an artist who knows the rhythms from the streets up, having paraded as an Indian with his father and nephew, advancing a cultural vocabulary that finds new expression in his instrumental attack. Big Chief, as performed by Harrison and company, is nearly as rich in material as the earlier CD, Indian Blue – and is now a homage to the two big chiefs, Harrison Sr. and George Landry, second-lining in the sky. •