Jamaican-born Joe Harriott died in 1973 at the age of just 44. Though he shook up the UK jazz scene in his lifetime, garnered comparisons to Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker, pioneered Indo-jazz fusions and, in Kinch’s words, ‘scared the hell out of people’ with his prodigious technique, he died almost penniless. And due to the BBC’s policy of wiping much of their videotaped music archive in the ‘70s and ‘80s, hardly any footage exists of Harriott save a TV performance of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’.
Soweto would seem to be the ideal candidate to bring Harriott’s music back to life, not just because his alto playing reminds many of Harriott’s but also because of his unique multi-media approach (as heard on his fantastic The New Emancipation CD), taking in spoken word, interview samples, ‘character rapping’ and found sounds, not to mention some brilliantly-focused small-group jazz playing featuring Byron Wallen on trumpet, Jim Hart on vibes, bassist Karl Rasheed-Abel and drummer Graham Godfrey.
Kinch initially concentrated mainly on music from Harriott’s 1960 Abstract album which remarkably went unreleased in the UK in his lifetime but has become a fans’ favourite since its UK release in 1998. The opening ‘Formation’ featured a galloping melody line, a riveting ‘time, no changes’ solo section and some fantastic growling Byron Wallen trumpet out of Lester Bowie. ‘Coda’ and ‘Straight Lines’ were simply great fun, Kinch occasionally latching onto one of Wallen’s phrases and playing it back to him off-mic. It was impossible not to compare this music to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy’s best work – the latter’s Out To Lunch Blue Note album was surely influenced by Harriott’s compositions. And the more tricky the music got, the more Kinch seemed determined to have a good time, smiling at the nuances of the music and wholeheartedness of the band.
Kinch’s extraordinary jazz/spoken word piece ‘Want ‘Em Out’ investigated the perspectives of a black and white character in late ‘50s/early ‘60s London, the volatile London of teddy boys, Windrush and ‘Absolute Beginners’, and sympathised with both. Kinch pointed out that while Harriott was undoubtedly a victim of racism, he simply refused to see it as a problem or see race as an obstacle. As Kinch put it, ‘He didn’t just consider himself an equal but a superior!’ In ‘Tonal’, Kinch’s Greek chorus of five characters who may have met Harriott towards the end of his life stood in for the instrumental solos in a brilliant rethinking of jazz logic.
After a prolonged standing ovation, the concert ended with a very tender rendering of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’. Though Harriott sadly didn’t receive too much recognition in his lifetime, thankfully it seems very unlikely that the same fate will befall Kinch. One of the jazz events of the year.