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Review: Craig Harris’ Breathe at Jazz Winterfest 2017

On January 6, an ensemble of more than 35 musicians performed Craig Harris’ concept composition, “Breathe,” at Jazz Winterfest 2017 in New York. The music sounded like a politically activated Duke Ellington’s big band meeting the Sun Ra Archestra with some African, Afro-Cuban and P-funk mixed in with motivating Amiri Baraka-type spoken words offered so the focus would not be misconstrued. None of those icons named above... were in attendance nor were they quoted directly. But the event and the large assembly of experienced and renowned jazz and new music veterans who came to perform under the direction of trombonist-composer Craig Harris were quite extraordinary.

The Winterfest audience at the acoustically magnificent Tishman auditorium at the New School for Social Research was treated to a wonderful mini-concert dedicated to social justice and commemorating Eric Gardner who died while being arrested pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”
The presentation of an extremely large collection of brass, woodwinds and non-traditional horns, is meant to demonstrate the power and diversity of all who live and breathe and to celebrate those who have lived and died advancing the concept of justice for all.

In his “Breathe” composition Harris uses themes, tonal textures and rhythmic beds to create backdrops for soloists and sectional interplay. In the live performance of the piece, he directs the band in a style reminiscent of the late Butch Harris’ “Conduction” techniques, utilizing gestures to designate different movements, soloists and dynamics. The resultant sonic output and visual impact are impressive, to say the least.

Mr. Harris and his compatriots offered a spectacular confirmation that we all need to breathe in order to survive and as a society we need to breathe in our highest ideals in order to live to the fullest. The artists believe that the jazz, esoteric and innovative music can be a vehicle to expand the concept of freedom. The live performance achieves that objective. “Breathe” is a phenomenal work of art.

J. Plunky Branch

Photo Credit: Adrien H. Tillman