Eddie Harris: Live At Fabrik

German concert from 1988 shows the maverick funk saxophonist still on top form, although somewhat eclipsed by sidemen routines

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In 1986, Eddie Harris, who had scored big hits with Exodus and Listen Here in the 1960s, was in the studio of Max Bolleman in The Netherlands. As Bolleman tells it in his memoirs, Harris continually referred to himself as “El Cheapo”. When, for instance, his self-made electrical effect box broke down, the inventor of such outlandish instruments as the “guitorgan” said: “Small wonder, I’m El Cheapo.”

Slight inferiority complex? Few could boast superstar status as much as Harris, but the tenor saxophonist was largely ignored after the swinging, innovative 60s, a situation that could hardly have been expected to be remedied by the release of comedy records as The Reason Why I’m Talkin’ S–t.

Archival release Live At Fabrik reveals that Harris still pulled a crowd in 1988 and his show went down well in Hamburg. Audience response is enthusiastic and prominently in the mix of a 2CD/2LP set that sounds as clear and bright as if recorded just yesterday.

Definite highlight is Freedom Jazz Dance, the classic Harris composition that was famously covered by Miles Davis. Harris locks in tightly with his fusion band, which responds to his exuberant three-minute-long Coltrane-inspired introduction with a blistering theme statement and hefty groove that shakes the nerves of scary deep-sea creatures in the pitch-black and muddy depths of the Indian Ocean. Harris is in top form, prowling the dark corners of his soul with barrages of repetitions and variations, a complex but highly emotional tour de force. Hot on his heels, the inspired Daryll Thompson plays like a cross between Adje van den Berg and John Scofield.

At his most extreme, extremist if you will, Harris handles Ice Cream all by himself, not pausing to take a breath and creating a thunderous musical equivalent of Pollock’s action painting. It’s a thrilling and curious counterpart of the Chicagoan’s hilarious vocal exercises, which climax during the exotic La Carnival, all whoops and shrieks and crafty gibberish and beatboxing that aptly reflects the court jester of jazz’s late-career mix of black street-talk and Africa. A hyperbolic reimagining of Rufus Thomas, Hugh Masekela and Richard Pryor that, lest we forget, prefigured rap and hip hop.

Exciting stuff. Harris’s trademark high and punchy sound has lost nothing of its strength but unfortunately the bulk of his concert consists of so-so piano and vocal parts and rather rigid jazz-funk with overdone guitar and bass solos. The suspicion arises that Harris was already bored with his song from two years earlier, Eddie Who. Irony should have dripped from his summary of past achievements (not excluding Swiss Movement, his incredible hit record with Les McCann) like saliva from an angry Doberman’s mouth. Instead, frustration seems to dominate self-mockery.

In hindsight, a supremacy of Harris’s exceptional jazz chops over his funky showmanship arguably would have made him a more impressive artist. But Harris was his own man, no holds barred. Live At Fabrik is an excellent reminder.

Discography
CD1: Blue Bossa; La Carnival; Freedom Jazz Dance; Ice Cream (47.29)
CD2: Ambidextrous; Vexatious Progressions; Eddie Who; Get On Down (49.38)

Harris (ts, p, reed trumpet, v); Darryl Thompson (g); Ray Peterson (b); Norman Fearrington (d); Hamburg, 24 January 1988.
Delta Music 77106