Wendell Harrison has gigged on the celestial road with Sun Ra and recorded in the most challenging (and perhaps least listener-friendly) format of the unaccompanied saxophone disc. He's fronted likewise daunting clarinet choirs (off-putting in concept, perhaps, but not execution, it should be noted). But lest there be any confusion, all the way back to the Afro-centric Tribe collective of the '70s, in which he was the chief organizer-conceptualist, there's been a funky populist streak in his music. It's just a matter of whether it's on the surface or more subtly below. In fact, it's no stretch to say he has a sweet tooth for pop confections that's sometimes even gotten the best of him (especially when ambitions trumped production values).
But his appropriately titled It's About Damn Time gets the right mixture of the straight ahead, the pop and the populist — and just enough sugaring. The track "Take Time Out" goes back to at least 1980 when it appeared on his Dreams of a Love Supreme LP with Miche Braden carrying the mid-tempo soul-burner vocals. Three decades in affordable studio technology make a big difference, and this time, with vocals by Linda Boston, the production by John and Ann Shetler does the track justice. In the guest vocal department, Detroit funk maestro Amp Fiddler is also on hand for a Wendell Harrison-Pamela Wise composed exercise in lubriciousness: "Love Juice."
Harrison followers will hear other familiar pieces here. "Pojo," "Urban Expression" and "Lord Not Another Lover," for instance, all appeared as recently as 2004's Urban Expression, and they're improved here with less cluttered arrangements and real drummers (Djallo Djakate, Gayelynn McKinney and Dan Schmatz) replacing the previous programmed percussion. Kudos, too, to guitarist Vaughn (cousin of Earl) Klugh and bassist Damon Warmack.
Still undocumented in Harrison's bag of genres is his gypsy swing music. No doubt that, too, is just a damn matter of time. —W. Kim Heron
Record release party Saturday, July 30, at Cliff Bell's, 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543.