Billy Harper ‘Capra Black’ LP (Strata-East/Pure Pleasure) 4/5

The debut recording as a leader by tenorist Billy Harper is an endearing part of the Strata East back catalogue and by the time this was released in 1973, Harper was already thirty years of age with a fully matured sound. The son a preacher man and among a family of musicians, it was always likely that the musical and spiritual dimensions would collide in the life of Billy Harper. Thus it proved from the age of three, Harper was singing both solo and in a group in a Baptist church choir. “I grew up with the church. Music has always been part of my universe”*. During the mid-late 1960’s, Harper gained useful experience as a sideman with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Gil Evans, Max Roach and the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Big Band. When it came to forming his own larger ensemble, Harper could therefore draw upon this experience and various contacts within the community of jazz musicians. Which explains in part why the line-up of ‘Capra Black’ is stylistically diverse, with drummers including Elvin Jones (formerly part of the John Coltrane quartet) and Billy Cobham (then about to embark on his own jazz fusion path, but formerly drummer with the Horace Silver quintet), pianist George Cables, trombonist Julian Priester (stints with both Lonnie Smith and Sun Ra), bassist Reggie Workman, trumpeter Jimmy Owens and a host of voices with Gene McDaniels among them. The all original set was a prototype of what was to follow in the Harper discography; lengthy pieces with titles that immediately spoke of the spiritual cause. Strata-East devotees have long coveted the title track, but this writer is especially fond of, ‘Sir Galahad’, and those two extended numbers grace the majority of side one. A medley balances out matters on side two with the reposing, ‘Soulfully, I Love You / Black Spiritual Of Love’, before the impassioned, ‘Cry Of Hunger!’, rounds off the album in fine fashion and is another highlight.

Billy Harper would enjoy a prolific sideman career in the 1970’s gracing albums as important as ‘Charles Earland’, ‘Svengali’ for Gil Evans as well as the final albums that Lee Morgan cut for Blue Note. He continued to work into the 1990’s where he rejoined Randy Weston for the excellent ‘Spirit Of The Ancestors’, and then, with the McCoy Tyner Big Band on ‘Journey’. His own albums are much more difficult to find and many remain available only in Japan, with the occasional French label release and even one on MPS. His towering glory and masterpiece is ‘Black Saint’, the very first album to grace that label, but ‘Capra Black’, was nonetheless an important stepping stone in his career, and one that garnered sufficient critical applause to enable him to work with some of the greats. Billy Harper, in his commitment to the spiritual side of music, has frequently been likened to John Coltrane, but the former was quick to state that it is valid only in that they share the same source.

For a future Strata-East that is highly sought after by collectors, how about re-issuing the superlative, ‘Glass Bead Games’, by Clifford Jordan, long unavailable, and featuring two classics slices of spiritual jazz (one a stunning tribute to John Coltrane) that found their way onto a Universal Sound compilation of the label back in the 1990’s?

* Jazz Hot interview with Billy Harper, September 1993.

Tim Stenhouse