Last Best Hope


A mainstay of the ’80s avant-garde scene who hasn’t been heard from much lately, trombonist Craig Harris has re-emerged with Souls Within the Veil, a beauty of an extended work spread over two discs and inspired by a close reading of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folks. The all-star front line reads like a David Murray big-band reunion—Harris, trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, clarinetist Don Byron, and saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett, Steve Coleman, and Oliver Lake. All are hot, with Coleman and Bluiett on fire. While allowing the players plenty of room, Harris’s writing is lustrous and propulsive by turns—very often both. He’s attempted something ambitious and pulled it off, capturing the variegated moods of the spirituals DuBois called “sorrow songs” without adhering to their form. The ensembles are occasionally a little rugged, and the live recording could be better, but none of this prevents Souls Within the Veil from soaring. Harris arrived in jazz during a time when the elevation of composition to an equal level with improvisation seemed the last best hope for the music’s continued growth, and so many of that era’s significant figures have fallen into neglect that it’s difficult not to be moved to nostalgia by a new work of this magnitude. Souls Within the Veil would’ve fit right in with the zeitgeist in 1984. It’s more welcome than ever in 2005.