Thursday, February 9, 2012

Three Tenors: Billy Harper,Gary Thomas, and Rob Scheps

Billy Harper
Sometimes I wish I played tenor saxophone. There are so many great important tenor players in jazz: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis, Bob Berg, Steve Grossman, Benny Golson, George Coleman, Warne Marsh, Dewey Redman, Jan Gabarek, Joe Henderson. And then when you think about all the tenor players of today, like Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Donny McCaslin, Greg Tardy, Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Tim Warfield, Marcus Strickland, Wayne Escoffrey.....this is all just off the top of my head! But there are three tenors that I think don't get talked about enough, especially by other tenor players. Obviously, there are already so many to deal with, so I can forgive the oversight. But I thought I would mention three that I believe are overlooked. (Although the list of overlooked jazz musicians would fill a stadium.)

Number one is Billy Harper. If you want a big, BIG,  bold tenor sound with a lot of excitement and edge, you'll  love Billy Harper. Originally from Texas, Harper worked with Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and Gil Evans. He is a great composer; my personal favorites of his  are "Priestess"(which I recorded) and "Illumination". Harper's music has a heavy power to it. The melodies are "statements of fact" rather than "flights of fancy", if that makes any sense. And with titles like "I Do Believe" and "Thy Will Be Done", you know that Harper is thinking heavy thoughts! Harper recorded a bunch of albums in the late 70's, and it seems like he didn't record at all for much of the 80's. There are a bunch of live albums on Steeplechase that are nice. Harper is still active, albeit not as active as he should be. Check out his website for more info, and many of his classic recordings are on itunes;"Live in Europe" is available-that was one which I borrowed from my best friend and never returned(sorry, David...). It features a young Fred Hersch on piano as well as another under-known drummer, Horacee Arnold.

I was fortunate to perform with Harper one weekend at the Iridium a few years ago with David Weiss' band; Harper was a special guest, along with trumpet great Charles Tolliver. It was amazing to get to play "Priestess" and "Capra Black" with the composer himself. And Harper's sound is big on recordings, but up close, it's really staggering how intense his sound is.

Gary Thomas
Next is Gary Thomas, who was undoubtedly influenced by Harper; Thomas has a similar bold, edgy sound and definitely captured the inflections and intensity of Harper. Yet Thomas has a totally unique approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm. It's one of the most modern approaches to the tenor saxophone that exists. And Thomas' playing is kind of an enigma because many perceive his playing to be "out". But if you ever have transcribed any of his lines, you'll see that his command of harmony is impeccable. And Thomas seems to be able to go in all directions at once by manipulating small melodic "cells" of two, three, or four notes, and moving them around the tonal center in very dissonant ways. And his rhythmic approach can be dead center, or very staggered, and he has total rhythmic control either way.

Many tenor players "in the know" will admit that Gary Thomas is one of the true innovators on the tenor saxophone. Unfortunately, Thomas has been mostly teaching for the past 10 years, and hasn't recorded as a leader since 1998(to my knowledge). Thomas' music has been a big influence on my writing and playing, and I was fortunate to do some of my first touring with his bands. Thomas' albums which I would recommend would include "Seventh Quadrant", "Code Violations", "By Any Means Necessary","While The Gate Is Open", "The Kold Kage", "Exile's Gate", Found On Sordid Streets", and "Pariah's Pariah". (That's just off the top of my head.)

Rob Scheps
Lastly, I mention tenor saxophonist Rob Scheps because he is also a big Billy Harper disciple, but also because I recently worked with Scheps after not playing with him for about 15 years. Scheps is moving back and forth between New York and Portland a lot these days, but he lived in Portland for a number of years. Scheps is a true virtuoso tenor player; he has a huge tone and more chops than most. He seems to have total musical recall as well; he's a master of "quotes". He'll play some other melody within any set of chord changes, and it will be the silliest nursery rhyme or the hippest McCoy Tyner tune! He's one of the most intense people you will ever meet.

Scheps was in town to play a few local gigs and record a big band album. I played with his quintet, which featured the great Greg Gisbert on trumpet, Scott Steed on bass, and Todd Strait on drums. It was a real "New York Gig Experience" in Portland. The music was on a higher level than many of my students had ever heard. Scheps and Gisbert also came by PSU and gave a very informative clinic. I need to get my chops back up just in case Scheps calls me the next time he's in town!


  1. Hi George,

    Long-time listener, first-time caller. Next time you're in NYC, I'd love to have you on The Jazz Session. Speaking of which, Billy Harper was on not long ago. I thought it might be a nice companion piece for your readers. Here's the link:

    All the best,


  2. Great article. I've known Billy for 35 years and consider myself fairly well-informed on Harper matters, but I didn't know you recorded "Priestess" and will look for it right away.

    In the late 80's I took a cassette of Gary's first (and quite Harperesque) album "The Seventh Quadrant" to Billy's apartment. "Howard [Johnson] told me there's a young man I should check out. This must be him" he said, and as we listened to it through he never stopped smiling. When the last track ended, Billy said "Well, it seems I might have a protegé."

    To Gary's credit, the overt Billy Bits in his playing disappeared around this time, and Gary became one of the most recognizable (not to mention technically accomplished and forward-thinking and downright hard-boiled) tenor players of the 90's.

    Best regards,

    Mark E. Rappaport

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