1963; a young maintenance worker from Philadelphia is watching JFK’s funeral procession on television moved by what he is witnessing. It is not the passing of a President, nor the sense of occasion that moved him but the sound of the Black Watch regiment and their bagpipes. Barely able to contain himself, Rufus Harley searches the city in vain for a set of bagpipes of his own before finally finding some in a New York pawn shop. This was 1963. Fast forward to 1965 and Harley is releasing his first material through Atlantic. Already proficient in a number of wind instruments such as the saxophone as well as the trumpet, Harley applied himself and learned to play without any formal tuition.
This album is not easy to listen to; it should come with some sort of public health warning lest people stumble across it by accident and get the wrong idea. It is after all the coming together of Jazz and bagpipe, something you might expect to see on one of the Fast Show’s Jazz Club sketches (nice) or described as part of some unbelievable Hunter S. Thompson trip. This album rewards those that persevere with it. I cannot deny that it takes a few listens to tune your ear into Harley’s peculiar playing style but soon you find yourself tapping your toes along to the wild snapping of the snare, the walking double bass, the pounding piano and the screech of the bagpipes.
There is an awkwardness when Harley tries to play it straight, the start of Scotland The Brave sounding more like a nervous 13 year old rushing through the National Anthem at the start of a local Agricultural Show than a great jazz musician pushing boundaries, but when the Georges Arvanitas Trio let fly and Harley plays the instrument his way it sounds like nothing you have ever heard before. That phrase, is of course a cliché, over used in the realm of music criticism and rarely in any meaningful sense. It is often a symptom of the writers own narrow frame of reference rather than any shortcomings on the part of the artist. But here, when Harley wails over the top of Georges Arvanitas’ piano, playing around with the melody there is a definite alien feel to the sound; like a Martian returning home from Earth, reinterpreting the music of our planet on his Martian anal nose flute.
Harley’s oeuvre is well respected within Jazz circles and no doubt some aficionado will stumble across this and berate me for presenting this album as a one off curiosity. Yes, there are other Rufus Harley records, not least the reissue of his Atlantic recordings but the presence of the Scottish National Anthem (the traditional one anyway) as well as decent Jazz interpretations of Moon River and Amazing Grace make this album a more accessible introduction to what Harley was trying to achieve.
The bagpipes were never meant for Jazz or maybe Jazz was never meant for bagpipes. Either way it doesn’t matter. What is exciting is that records like this exist. This is what great music is about, pushing boundaries, trying new things, experimentation. In a time when almost any song is available to the listener in an instant, it is too easy to stick with what is familiar. Why endure something that may prove ultimately rewarding when you can obtain instant gratification elsewhere – press shuffle on your Ipod – skip to the next track. We become like addicts, drawing on some brief momentary high before desperately looking for our next hit. Writing for this blog has reminded to me that pleasure from music has to be earned by the listener as much as it has to be earned by the artist and even though, sometimes, it seems too weird to live it is also too rare to die.
Cameron R. Black