One of my favorite memories from going to live shows is set at the Wilson Center, WDC, in early 1989. Fugazi was playing, and at one point, their sound took on the characteristics of bagpipes. I swear, Ian and Guys' guitars made the band sound much more like a Scottish tattoo than a Post Punk band. I made a mental note right then and there to check out some bagpipe music, and on occasion have actually done so. It's a great sound, wry and melodic to my ears. I love it.
Rufus Harley loved the bagpipes, too. A long-time resident of Philadelphia, Harley may be the only Jazz bagpipe virtuoso in history. Aside from Albert Ayler's trippy tune Masonic Inborn, I can't recall any other examples of the bagpipes being used in Jazz. He made records for Atlantic during the 1960's, but seems to have been consigned to the fringes of Jazz history. It doesn't seem right that such creativity and invention (I mean, come on, JAZZ BAGPIPES?), could be shunted aside, but thankfully the great Transparency label has recently re-issued Re-Creation of the Gods, Rufus's 1972 offering.
Re-Creation of the Gods is a solid, soulful record. Harley leads a rhythm section made up of organ, electric bass, and drums through six hard boppin' tunes. There's a great "Soul Jazz" feel throughout the entire proceedings, in no small measure due to the funky organ playing of Bill Mason. Mason's playing is at times smooth and supportive, at times overdriven and heavy a la Larry Young's Lifetime wailing, but always right on point and in the pocket. His solos are great, too, full of wild abstraction, as on the amazing tunes The Crack (about the Liberty Bell, according to the liner notes) and Etymology. The rhythm section of Larry Langston on drums and Larry Randolph on bass provides tight support for Harley and Masons' solo flights. Their grooves are funky in a post 1970's Jazz Fusion sort of way. Randolph's bass playing on many of the tunes sticks to fundamentals, but on ones like Hypothesis he flows with crazy walking playing that sounds simultaneously relaxed and frantic. His tone is all butter, too. Langston's drumming is by turns jazzy or funky, according to the needs of the rest of the rhythm section. On The Crack and Malika he struts with a real New Orleans sounding high hat and snare drum fueled backbeat, real syncopated sass, almost Bonham-like on the latter cut. That he can turn around and blast out heavy-assed Jazz Fusion drumming on Etymology and Hypothesis, rolling and tumbling off of his ride cymbal and tom toms, is just beautiful. I wonder if he still plays. Harley augments his bagpipe soloing with the electric soprano sax, and with both instruments he solos wonderfully, hitting Coltrane or Lateef style multi-phonic spaces with the former and gruff Roland Kirk type tones and bellows with the later. Despite his exploring, he always has interesting melodic ideas, and never sounds boring on his axes.
Sound wise, Re-Creation of the Gods has a nice, raw feel to it. It's not too slickly produced, and the occasional lapses in Harley's intonation give it a real live feel. The band sounds loose and authentic, sometimes reminding me more of the blues groups led by Junior Kimborough and R.L. Burnside. It features a nice, even mix of all instruments, which is warm and inviting to the ears. The liner notes for Transparency's re-issue feature mystical/spiritual tones, making me wonder if Harley spent any time at Sun Ra's band house in Philadelphia, which I believe would have been there by 1972.
The bagpipes are by no means a commonly used instrument here in America. One might hear them at Fraternal Order of Police/Firefighter funerals, and there used to be a guy who'd sometimes play on Market St. in San Francisco, but for the most they seem pretty rare. In Rufus Harley we have a great example of American Jazz "eccentricity", a musician making highly personal and creative statements by thinking outside of the realms of established canon. I wish I could have seen him at the Wilson Center that night, too.