I began in the aftermath of the Krewe Du Vieux Parade on Decatur Street. Beaming with nightlife, the serenades of satire and counter-culture themes make it one of my favorite Mardi Gras events. Walking past Check Point Charlie’s down to Frenchmen Street, I was greeted by beautiful brass bands illuminating the Crescent City sky with sounds of dance, love, and laughter. As I walked further, I was enchanted by the music seeping through open doorways of nearby nightclubs. Out of a smokey haze, I was greeted by a stranger dressed in full Victorian costume who, unprovoked and without a word, handed me a CD. At first, I assumed he was looking to sell it to me, so I shook my head. But he persisted by saying, “It’s Carnaval brah. You need this blessing”. That CD was Donald Harrison Jr.’s “Congo Square Suite”, an album that came into my life at random, in a most mysterious and beautiful way.
Big Chief Donald Harrison brings us a three-part musical journey with this latest release. At just over thirty-seven minutes, the opus showcases the Big Chief’s conducting and instrumentational genius, blending European influences with tribal, bebop, classical, and jazz fusion genres. The album is from the perspective of a New Orleans native, the Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, and a performer in the iconic band, the Jazz Messengers. At a tenure of forty years and counting, his career also includes an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, and collaborations with artists such as Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Eddie Palmieri, and the Notorious B.I.G. He is also a former tutor to his nephew, New Orleans native and critically acclaimed musician, Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (Christian Scott).
Back home I sat with a cigar and a glass of Haitian rum accompanied with a lime wedge. Incredibly intrigued, I was ready to begin my journey with this magical gift from beyond. The album started to play, and the first track, “Movement I” (feat. Max Moran, Joe Dyson & The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group) wisped me away to those Sunday afternoon drum circles in Congo Square. White dresses danced, sage burned, and ceremonies brought offerings for the ancestors. “Movement I” drew me into a trance with its pulsating percussion and repeated chants singing out “Congo, Congo, Congo, Congo Nation”. According to the description on Harrison’s Bandcamp page, “This movement is a chant composed by Donald Harrison for drums and voices. The drum and vocal performances showcase an example of the Afro-New Orleans offshoot culture, rhythms, and music forged in Congo Square. Harrison integrates elements of ancient African music kept alive in Congo Square with ideas he learned listening to tribal African field recordings. “
“Movement II”, originally written in 2015, is an epic orchestral performance by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra that was composed and orchestrated by Donald Harrison, Jr. I was quickly transported to another world by a revolutionary recording that completely changed pace with grace and complexity. A monumental achievement in fusion and classical music, it is a stunning cultural piece that implements chants and drum patterns. “Movement II” unifies Harrison’s experiences as the Big Chief of Congo Square with his sixty-plus years participating in Afro-New Orleans culture. I quickly jumped up from my chair, put my cigar down in the ashtray, and began miming conductor motions with my hand. I am not the most versed in classical theory, but the performance and direction given to me by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra was nothing short of robust. It delivered my imagination to a whirlwind of instrumentation, painting an energetic yet soothing picture. Sonically, it demonstrated some of the most innovative ways to incorporate genre mixing while remaining cohesive from start to finish.
With a freshly refilled cocktail, I paced around my apartment for a bit to reflect on my journey thus far. Then I returned to my stereo to finish this wonderful acousitcal quest. Rounding out “Congo Square Suite” is “Movement III”, a suitable closer that shapes together a hybrid of Congo Square tribal rhythms, contemporary Jazz, and classical orchestration. The foundation is set forth as a laid-back samba. Where Harrison’s saxophone dabbles a bit of attitude, Zaccai Curtis’ piano moves to-and-fro between several ostinato phrases, delivering a classic jazz civility. With the samba maintained and two-thirds of the track behind us, Harrison begins to break free with an improvisational style.
Both Harrison and the Congo Square Nation act as custodians of culture while pushing boundaries through experimentation. Harrison assumes the position of master of ceremonies for celebration and meaning. The entire album of “Congo Square Suite” is cinematic, reeling the listener in further with its ability to evolve and morph into a style all its own. Whether you’re exploring the rich history of jazz, classical, tribal, or experimental music, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr.’s work will be a satisfying, educational delight to the senses. I highly recommend setting aside some time to get lost in the soon to be classic oeuvre that is “Congo Square Suite”.
With my drink empty and cigar extinguished, I closed my eyes and began to dream about the fortunes I have come to encounter in New Orleans. Talks with strangers, new live music experiences, eating and drinking with friends, and unexpected events have become the fortunes I desire. Finding this album amid Mardi Gras festivities seeded sentimental feelings of how lucky I am to live and grow in a very deep-rooted musical and cultural city. Reminding me of the past, grounding me in the present, and brightening my future, I hope the journey of “Congo Square Suite” gives you a similar experience.
Author: Ryan McKern
Editor: David Trahan
From Congo Square Suite, released April 28, 2023
Donald Harrison: composer, orchestration, producer, saxophonist, lead vocals, percussion
Joe Dyson, drums
Zaccai Curtis, piano
Max Moran, bass
The Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Gerald French, percussion
Howard “Smiley” Ricks, percussion
Antione “Tuba Fats”, percussion
Bruce “Action” Jackson, percussion