Rufus Harley - 1936 - 2006
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The thing about Rufus that made his passing such news was that he is widely regarded as the world’s first jazz bagpiper. As he often performed in a kilt and spent most of his life in Philadelphia, that sounds like a novelty act to your average Fleet St. Editor in the quest for tons of print on a daily basis. Thankfully, Mr. Harley wasn’t a novelty at all, very much the opposite.
The story goes that he learnt to play the saxophone, oboe and flute as a youngster but it was upon hearing the pipe band of the Black Watch play at John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 that he took up the bagpipes.
He released four albums on Atlantic between 1965-70 and made appearances on Herbie Mann’s The Wailing Dervishes (1967), Laurie Anderson Big Science (1982) and The Roots From The Ground Up (1994).
Clearly not as prolific as an artist as his talent deserved, he spent his days as a community worker amongst the poor of the city. Thankfully, to redress the balance a little, a jazz fan from France, Antonine Rajon, had the opportunity to produce some albums for the Philly Jazz label and in 2005 they released Sustain.
The version of ‘A Love Supreme’ is excellent and it’s one of the tracks that surprise you with the ‘sustain’ element of the bagpipes (also check Acknowledgement For J.C. on Kindred Spirits with Dwight Trible that’s recently been released). Similarly, the Hammond of Joshua Yukin gets ‘Scotland The Brave’ into a Big John Patton vibe.
It’s the soul-jazz tracks are the highlights like ‘The Constitution’ and, especially ‘Sunshower’, with excellent playing by the whole band. ‘We The People’ has a bit of a sticky start but settles nicely into a blues march and I never thought I’d say this, the version of ‘Amazing Grace’ is amazing! It sounds like a 60s soul revival meeting and what going to church should be all about.
It is often said the use of bagpipes in a pipe band was to put the “Fear of God” into the hearts of the enemy. Harley and this band bring joy into your heart, a smile on your face and, at times, some dance in your legs.
Rufus Harley died of prostate cancer on 1st August aged 70 in the city of brotherly love. To paraphrase his introduction to ‘A Love Supreme’, “In memory of our brother … me, we, us and all .. to keep that love in body and soul… so let’s blow up the bag up and sustain our loving culture. Whether it’s 2Pac or Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, there just never seems enough time. RIP.
Reviewed: Rufus Harley - Sustain (Discograph) Cat. No. 6097215 Release date 2005
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