One of the most deeply memorable events of last summer's Chicago Jazz Festival came courtesy of an exceptional New Orleans musician.
Saxophonist Donald Harrison, who had been booked to close the event, invited Chicago piano master Willie Pickens to play with Harrison's band – then turned over the stage entirely to Pickens, who produced a galvanic solo transformation of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
To see a musician of Harrison's stature giving up his own stage time for a revered elder was striking and said a lot about Harrison's view of jazz heritage.
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"I've been fortunate that a lot of great, great musicians have taken me under their wing … and they teach me," says Harrison, who on Friday opens a weekend engagement at the Jazz Showcase.
"Art Blakey, Miles Davis and a lot of great people. And Willie is one of those people. So if I have a chance to listen to them and play with them and even present them, it's always a great honor for me."
But it wasn't only Harrison who benefited from Pickens' hard-won musical wisdom that night: Harrison's young collaborators also had the privilege of playing alongside a Chicago pianist who had been musical director for drummer Elvin Jones and has accompanied many of the legends who have passed through the Showcase over the decades.
"I thought it's necessary for young musicians to learn as much as they can about the history of the music and understand as much as they can how to play different styles of music," adds Harrison, in explaining why he invited Pickens to join the band on a couple of tunes.
"For me, (acquiring) any kind of knowledge of that music that we call jazz is critical, and he's vital to this music right now. Those lessons that I'm talking about are diminishing every day. … It's so vital to keep these guys in the forefront and their importance in the forefront."
Which is exactly what Harrison will be doing again this weekend, when Pickens will be heading up the rhythm section. To Pickens, the periodic partnership with Harrison – which started for nearly 15 years and reached a dramatic high point at the Jazz Festival – has been both meaningful and mysterious.
"I guess he heard something in me that fit with what he was doing," says Pickens, 82, of his appearances with Harrison when the saxophonist is in Chicago. "It's just one of those things. You collaborate with an artist, and you kind of click. I had a connection with Elvin Jones that way.
"I think the sensibilities of (both men) is something that speaks to him and something that speaks to me. It's kind of like a two-way street. I get a lot of inspiration from him, the way he plays."
Musically, adds Pickens, Harrison "is so giving. He's not one of those people who's like: 'Dig me and how great I am.' He blends in, and it's like a group effort. It's about the music. It's not so much about the individual. It's what each one can bring to the music."
Certainly there's a certain alchemy that takes place when Harrison and Pickens share a bandstand, the saxophonist's respect for tradition reflected in the amount of space he gives Pickens. But this is no nostalgia show, for Pickens always has pushed at the boundaries of harmonic and rhythmic convention, even as he builds on the past 50-plus years of jazz piano history.
"Certain guys have the sound that you hear that's connected to everything," says Harrison, who was startled when he first heard Pickens play many years ago. "I immediately heard that Willie was one of those people.
"Not only is he connected to everything, he's also one of the most adventurous musicians. Because on stage at the Jazz Festival, he played 'Giant Steps,' and you could hear this relentless invention.
"He's what I call, 'all of the above,'" adds Harrison, meaning that Pickens commands the full range of technical and musical equipment. "The second I heard it, anyway, I was like: That's the guy I need to be around right away."
As for Harrison, he says he's in the midst of developing a new harmonic approach for himself, one that veers away from clinging to a particular key and, instead, roams freely among various tonal centers. As always, though, his music embraces a wide span of influences, from mid-20th century bebop to Mardi Gras Indian chant to blues, gospel and other strains of New Orleans music.
"I like to think of music like the Mississippi River," says Harrison. "When it reaches New Orleans, there are many rivers that go into the Mississippi, many streams. When it gets down here, it's full of all of these rivers. It's deep, and it has a lot of stuff in it.
"I always thought of myself wanting to be like the Mississippi River, with a lot of stuff. Just to pay the dues to all those rivers and all those tributaries and get that stuff inside of me."
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