Take a breath.
Purchase this album: Amazon
THE SCENE: Imagine you’ve been invited to a fine dinner party, where you are expected to share your latest art project. The woman seated to your left displays her bronze abstract sculpture. The man on your right shows off his new painting, a classic oil-on-canvas of a fruit basket. And you proudly produce, to everyone’s immediate revulsion, an unfeasibly large beehive, actively teeming with thousands of buzzing, swarming bees. While you’re explaining your dangerous interest in massively oversize stinging insect colonies, the other guests slowly begin to back away from you, except for the few who bolt out the backdoor like a redneck perp on “COPS”. The host makes a mental note to erase you from her address book, her phone book and her Facebook.
This was the typical response to the revolutionary music of Philadelphia-bred Rufus Harley, the world’s first jazz bagpiper. He recorded a quartet of innovative but meagerly received albums for Atlantic Records in the mid-1960s but didn’t break out of his novelty status until 1972’s joyous Re-Creation of the Gods.
In Scotland the bagpipes are a nation treasure; its unmistakable bird-like drone can be heard during national celebrations and similar pagentry. In days of yore the Scottish army would also use bagpipes as an instrument of war, marching through the Highland mists scaring the bejeezus out of their enemy with its unearthly squawk. But its unearthly squawk called out to Harley, who put down his saxophone and began a singular obsession: fashioning jazz music for bagpipes.
A loose concept album about freedom, church, and community, Re-Creation is one swinging party album. “The Crack” greases up a hippo-sized bass fog that only the golden milky light of bagpipes could cut. His notes circle constantly like hawks in flight.
He sprinkles an old Negro spiritual with future esssence in “Nobpdy Knows the Trouble Us People Done Seen”, with a fat beat that could get Lutherans up to the dance floor. Harley makes his bapipes yodel along, like a tuned siren on a hipster ambulance blaring “MAKE ROOOOOM! NEW SOUNDS COMING THROOOOOOUGH!”
Like a long-lost Beastie Boys funkstrumental, “Gods And Goddesses” brays along like a donkey-led wagon with square wheels, happy and lopsidedly snappy. With all these songs the fun is infectious, as if Harley took all the negative, dismissive energy about his craft and turned into a tartan-clad trampoline, then jumped on it.
THE FALLOUT: Re-Creation was highly admired by the few who knew if existed, mainly other musicians.. He toured the world extensively and guested on a few left-of-center pop albums (The Roots’ Do You Want More!!!??! and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science), but only released one album after Re-Creation before his death in 2006.
Re-Creation of the Gods is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:
The saxophone was created for orchestras yet was rejected by the classical music world, only to become a foundation instrument of jazz, America’s original punk music. Harley’s devotion to the bagpipes follows a parallel path: how one person can effect the sonic recontexualization of music by sheer force of will.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: A challenge! Andre 3000 released his second solo album this year. Can you find it?