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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Don 'Sugar Cane' Harris

Sugar Cane's Got The Blues

Review by Julie Knispel

Frank Zappa, John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard...these are just a few of the varied artists who helped bring Don "Sugar Cane" Harris's violin skills the attention they deserve.  It seems a bit strange that the violin is not used as much in jazz and rock as it could be; when one considers the instrument's ability to mimic so many of the emotions the human voice can evoke, the instrument's lack of presence in rock music is even more evident.

Harris is one of a very vew violinists who made the jump into rock, jazz rock and progressive music, and for most prog rock fans, his tenure with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention is perhaps his most visible work.  Following on from his work on Zappa's seminal Hot Rats release, Harris was invited by the Berlin Jazzstage to take part in a number of events, including their violin summit and a solo/band performance.  That band performance, recorded live 4-7 November 1971, was released a year later as Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues, featuring a crack backing band anchored by former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt (another prog connection!).

This album has been re-released over 30 years later on the new Promising music imprint, and what a re-release it is.  Again packed in a card gatefold sleeve recreating the original album design, the CD has been printed to look like a traditional vinyl LP.  Extensive liner notes take the listener through the events that led up to this concert performance, including thumbnail biographies of the other band members, which included Terje Rypdal and Volker Kreigel on guitars, Wolfgang Dauner on keyboards and Neville Whitehead on electric bass.  Of course, the focal point is Sugar Cane himself, with his soulful, West Coast R&B vocals battling for prominence with his electric violin licks. Promising Music should be congratulated for ensuring this classic slice of bluesy fusion remains in print for another generation to discover.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Liz Pineapple Wonderful

A brief bit of introduction in German sets the stage for this long lost piece of blues/jazz/fusion.  The band is brought on stage one by one, and without warning, they kick into their groove.  Chopped guitar (almost funk), large doses of Wyatt riding the cymbals, and staccato electric piano chords wage battle with Harris's soulful vocals, singing the title lines over and over, before Harris decides to let fly with his furious violin skills.  And what an introductory moment it is when he begins to play, as sheets of sound come pouring from the strings and bow.  Considering that this band was essentially put together for these performances, it's amazing just how tight they are.  This period of time was one of great experimentation and crossing over of musical genres.  Having musicians from such disparate backgrounds coming together to create something this powerful in such a short period of time makes one long for those more experimental, anything goes musically times to come back.

Sugar Cane's Got The Blues
Sugar Cane elicits a mournful, sorrowful moan from his violin as Wyatt gently brushes cymbals behind him.  Earlier I mentioned how the violin can mimic so many human emotions, and here the violin sings a sad song indeed, sounding almost human in its sorrow.  At just over 15 minutes, this is the most expansive composition on this release, and it offers ample opportunity for listeners to grasp the extent of Harris' considerable skills.  Portions of this track compare to the laid back, pastoral side of Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame album, all the while remaining drenched in blues and West Coast soul.  The band kicks into high gear about midway through the track, with Volker Kreigel and Wolfgang Dauner getting opportunities to step out into the spotlight for extended solo showcases.  Dauner's is especially interesting, with moments that remind rock listeners of Keith Emerson's jazzier piano outings.  All in all, this is a diverse composition, moving through a number of styles and moods, and remaining fresh throughout.
Song For My Father
The only track on this release taken from the 'Violin Summit' portion of Harris's residency on the Berlin Jazzstage, this is also the only track to feature Norwegian ECM Records artist Terje Rypdal on guitar.  It's an instrumental, and Rypdal and Harris play off each other beautifully.  Rypdal's playing is bluesier than one might expect considering his huge output over the years, yet that bluesier style fits this material perfectly.  A heady 10-plus minute instrumental, the song flows and bubbles, finding a groove and riding it out for every bit the musicians can squeeze out of it.
Where's My Sunshine
The album closes with this smoking mid-tempo number, featuring deep down and dirty Harris vocals and some of the sickest violin playing on the release.  Yes, that's a compliment...Harris shifts from long sustained notes to sheets of sound without so much as a moment's notice, while Wyatt and Whitehead create a cool laid back groove for him to vamp over.  The liner notes aren't too clear as to which guitarist is playing on this track (the album is made up of pieces from two different concerts, as noted above), but a quick investigation on line shows that it's Volker Kreigel playing.  His guitar playing is fluid, quick, with nary a flubbed note, yet it lays back in the groove, not seeking to overpower Harris in the mix.  Wolfgang Dauner follows with a tasty piano solo of his own.  "Where's My Sunshine" is chock full of showcases for each musician, and it's an appropriate way to close out this excellent recording.
 
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