Beaver Harris-Don Pullen 360° Experience

A Well Kept Secret
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD042

What might have been heard on its release in 1984 as a last gasp Black Nationalist-Free Jazz session with a touch of exoticism, from a 2018 perspective was in reality a precursor of a more universal Jazz ethos. That’s because A Well Kept Secret was eclectic enough to mix Freebop with atonality, riff tunes with romanticism and taking cautious steps into what would soon be called World Music.

Context is everything. At the time the two leaders, drummer Beaver Harris (1936-1991) and pianist Don Pullen (1941- 1995), were best known for their affiliations with exploratory avatars like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler in Harris’ case and Charles Mingus and Milford Graves in Pullen’s. Tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford had recorded with Mingus, as had baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, part of then-nascent World Saxophone Quartet. Only journeyman bassist Buster Williams and almost unknown steel drummer Francis Haynes didn’t appear to be card-carrying members of the Great Black Music affiliation.

While the band’s mixture of traditional and inventive sounds might have flummoxed a scene then obsessed with Smooth Jazz, Fusion and the highly hyped Young Lions retro phenomenon, the 360° Experience was part of an ongoing assessment of musical prowess that owned nothing to contemporary fashions. For a start the title track profitably melds a staccato Blues, driven by keyboard jabs and kinetic drumming with snarling and snuffling sax expressions, without downplaying either sound-probing or a basic beat. More spectacularly the extended “Goree” which opens the disc, adds three French horns and Candido’s congas to the group for a layered Harris composition. Because of the drummers’ rollicking rebounds the track is rhythmically sophisticated, yet is orchestral enough to resemble some of McCoy Tyner’s large ensemble swing. Plus the canny arrangement is open enough to allow for a duet between saxophone snorts and steel pan reverberations. The theme is conveyed by Pullen with supple energy, just as the stop-time climax sways and swings. Meantime a pseudo-calypso feel presages the pianist’s later fascination with Caribbean and Latin riffs. Especially as Haynes’ clanging instrument echoes throughout and the reeds crying slurs owe more to Stanley Turrentine than Ayler, it demonstrates how a danceable a tune can modulate while making space for crackling piano arpeggios linked to rhythmic propulsion. Other numbers expand Mingusian logic with steel pan reverb (“Land of the Pharaohs) or emphasize the expressive, light-fingered playing that allowed Pullen to work accompanying nightclub singers (“Newcomer”).

In 1984 these veteran players were quietly evolving concepts that would become prevalent in post-modern Jazz by the 21st Century. A well-kept secret for too long, this CD reissue illuminates what went into that process.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Goree* 2. Land of the Pharaohs 3. Double Arc Jake 4. Well Kept Secret 5. Newcomer

Personnel: Sharon Freeman, Willie Ruff, Bill Warnick, Greg Williams (French horn)*; Ricky Ford (tenor saxophone); Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone); Don Pullen (piano); Buster Williams (bass); Beaver Harris (drums), Francis Haynes (steel drum) and Candido (percussion)*