A musical maelstrom named the Billy Harper Quintet roared through d.c. space Saturday night in as stunning a display of mainstream jazz of the '80s as we're likely to see for a while--until they return, that is. Employing standard instrumentation, Harper originals and inspired improvisation, the group swung fiercely with an amalgam of traditional and free elements that churned up the emotions and teased the intellect.
Harper, who came up out of the Texas school of tenor saxophone, black church music and John Coltrane, played Washington in years past at the late Bohemian Caverns. From his very first notes one sensed his gospel roots, and his command of his horn is such that in one piece he did a duet with himself in falsetto squeaks and deep grunts.
A mournful, even ominous, strain characterized "Destiny Is Yours" and "The Awakening," enhanced by the somber middle-range voice of Wallace Roney's trumpet. "Croquet Ballet," a tour de force of musical wit, eliminated, by means of a gradually abbreviated phrase, all contestants from the metaphorical game, Harper and the others knocking the final ball through the last wicket with a single note in unison. A sound system balance that favored the explosive polyrhythms of drummer Newman Baker too often overwhelmed pianist Armen Donelian and bassist Clarence Seay, but when they peeked through the thick texture it texture it was evident that their contribution was considerable.