Don 'Sugar Cane' Harris: Sugar Cane's Got the Blues

By: Trevor Pour

I recently had a jazz professor as a guest in my home. Before she could make it through the front door, her thoughts were interrupted by a cacophony of a high-pitched instrumental drifting towards her from the stereo in my kitchen. As an ear-to-ear grin began to appear on her face, she demanded to know, "What IS that?"

"That" was Don 'Sugar Cane' Harris, the one time violinist for Frank Zappa and the man who has been endlessly referred to as the "Jimi Hendrix of violin." Recently, Promising Music released a 24-bit re-mastering of his live 1971 tapes recorded at the Berlin Jazz Festival. That album, originally produced by Joachim Ernst Berendt, features a all-star cast including Volker Kriegel (guitar), Terje Rypdal (guitar), Wolfgang Dauner (keys), Neville Whitehead (bass), and Robert Wyatt (Soft Machine) (drums). From the first note until the very last, this album takes you on an epic journey. It's unequivocally one of the most technically impressive, emotionally powerful and historically poignant albums I've heard at this juncture in my life. Sugar Cane's Got the Blues consists of four tracks ranging from ten to fifteen minutes in duration, each with a unique character and displaying a different facet of Harris' musical persona.

The opening chops of "Song For My Father" are remarkably accurate and precise despite their technical difficulty. Sugar Cane displayed a kind of warped refinement that very few individuals on the planet have mastered; others that come to mind include Skerik, Col. Bruce Hampton and Brian Haas, in addition to a small handful of bebop/free jazz legends. But amongst all these illustrious names, Sugar Cane still, indisputably, rises to the top. With an ability unmatched in his time or ours, he may remain one of the most under-appreciated musicians of his century; not due to a lack of consideration, but because it is virtually impossible to do him justice with mere prose. This particular track weaves a beautiful tale, carrying the audience to dramatic highs and lows without losing their attention or their understanding.

"Liz Pineapple Wonderful," the intro track, sets an absurdly high bar for the remainder of the album by taking no time before screaming into a full-tilt jam. It's catchy, energetic, creative and alive. With impressive interplay between each musician, it remains driven by the Harris' commanding violin. It is immediately followed by the title track, "Sugar Cane's Got the Blues." The longest track on the disc, this creation highlights each performer's ability to explore the depths of their collective resonance without regard for urgency or boundaries. The result is a beautiful and elegant piece, which does not simply tread the line between blues and free jazz but fully incorporates them into a unified style. Finally, the album closes with "Where's My Sunshine," which prominently features the Sugar Cane's soulful vocals, develops slowly with bluesy guitar, and ends with an exquisite piano solo from Dauner.

Musicians of all shapes and sizes, jazz fans of any sub-genre, jam-rock connoisseurs and anyone willing to become totally lost in great music shouldn't think twice about picking this up. Admittedly it's an import and might cost a few extra bucks, but this is an excellent introduction to one of the preeminent talents of the 1960s and '70s. And even if you're well versed in the world of Sugar Cane Harris, this re-mastered record will fit neatly, and prominently, in your collection.

JamBase | Rosin Rich
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[Published on: 7/9/09]

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