Like the mythical Zeus, Greek god of the skies, drummer Winard Harper creates his own thunder and lightning. Seated behind a set of drums he controls the weather, clashing with his cymbals, then reaching with his whole body to silence them. And they obey. There seems to be no thing percussion that is not under his dominion, including what appears to be a hollowed-out tree stump on which he created rhythm and melody. At their recent performance at Flemington’s 90 Main St. jazz series, Harper and Jeli Posse (Antonio Hart on alto sax, Theo Hill on piano and Vince Dupont on bass), are a cyclone of sound, gathering the overflow crowd into its eye.
It was only by luck that Michael and I snagged two front row seats in the crowded room, as we arrived late. A venue that might have otherwise cost several times as much and many times the trials of traveling into the city, afforded us the privilege of sitting directly in front of the band. Hart, as he took his awe-inspiring and moving sax solos, most notably on “Soul Eyes,” was like a high priest offering incense, turning a mundane space sacred.
In between tunes Harper talked about the wonders of jazz, reminding us of its greater good, creating community, continuity and connection.
He urges us to nurture the jazz series that creator Judd Roth has established in our little town.
It’s also full of surprises. He introduced a vocalist, the 17-year-old Kameelah Harper, without further explanation. Ms. Harper (Winard’s daughter) turns out to have as much composure and control, style and swing than others with far more experience. “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “When Sunny Gets Blue” became hers, with perhaps a hint of Dinah Washington’s delivery to these ears. Another surprise was just as joyful. Tapper Megha Vadehra delighted the audience by skipping and stepping in her silver tap shoes to several of the tunes, adding another sweet layer of percussion.
By the way, if you’re curious about the group’s name, as I was, here’s the scoop. “Jeli” was originally a West African term for traveling historians, storytellers, musicians, praise singers and poets. Safe to say, tap dancers are welcome in the posse.
A photo of Winard Harper by Ed Berger appears in my book Jazz Lines, one that embodies the pure and infectious joy he spreads.