Thursday, 9 May 2013

Hidden Gems – Billie Harris and Joe Alexander

I've been listening to jazz and improvised music steadily since the 1970's and am constantly exploring new music with a heavy emphasis on saxophone players, especially tenor sax players. Many, if not most, of the players I like have absolutely no commercial following. Just when I thought I’d heard them all, last week I stumbled upon two hidden gems of saxophone playing – from different times and places, but great nonetheless and definitely worth seeking out and listening to. If players this great can go through life without having a visible impact on the music or attaining any sort of wide recognition, is there any hope for the rest of us minor league players?

The first hidden gem is Billie Harris of Los Angeles. I recently heard his album I Want Some Water for the first time, recorded in 1980 and released much later on Nimbus.

Billie’s album is dominated by legendary L.A. pianist Horace Tapscott, and in some ways it is as much Tapscott’s session as Billie’s even though Billie wrote all the tunes; Tapscott is just such a commanding presence. I'm not a great jazz piano aficionado but I find anything that Horace Tapscott comes close to worth a listen. Billie plays tenor, soprano, and flute. His tenor, from photos of the session, is a Martin Committee, which proves that you don’t need to play a Selmer to get that spiritual ‘Coltrane sound’. Photographer Mark Weber was at the studio that day, apparently Billie’s only time on record, and has memorialized the day on his web site. Billie Harris is still around, at age 76, and lives in Lancaster, California. Time for another studio date, better late than never? 

The second hidden gem is Joe Alexander, who spent his career in Cleveland and left behind only one recording of his own, the quartet session Blue Jubilee on Jazzland from 1960 (he also appears in a larger group setting on Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau).

Apparently Joe had quite a local following but never broke out to the national scene. There is an entire web page dedicated to his story on the city of Cleveland’s web site. He is a tough hard bopper who doesn't make a single wrong move on his record, and was good enough a player that Cannonball Adderley produced Blue Jubilee with the rhythm section of Bobby Timmons, Sam Jones, and Tootie Heath! I wonder how many other players this great and unheralded graced America’s lounges and bar rooms in my father’s generation? Joe died at the young age of 41 in 1970. I'm sure being a saxophonist during the 1950's and 60's didn't come with health care. Check out his disc which has been re-released on Fresh Sound.

I find it refreshing that the music itself is so deep that after almost 40 years of listening, there is still plenty of great stuff out there waiting to be discovered.

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