Fans of the HBO series “Treme” can turn off their television sets. The real thing is coming to Lake George. Tenor saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr and his band, Congo Square Nation, will present a special Saturday night performance during this year’s Lake George Jazz Weekend, which opens on September 15.
“It’s tremendously exciting that Donald Harrison is coming to Lake George,” said jazz festival curator Paul Pines. “I’ve been doing the Jazz Weekend for 29 years, and to me, this is the full flowering of everything we’ve done.” Anyone unfamiliar with Harrison’s reputation as one of the few, great tenor saxophone players of his generation may still recognize his story from “Treme.” Born in New Orleans in 1960, Harrison was raised in the city’s African-influenced culture of brass bands, parades and secret rituals by his father, Donald Harrison, Sr, a Big Chief of four “Indian” tribes. After graduating from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he re-located to New York, where he played hard bop with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
In 1992, he recorded “Indian Blues,” which fused Mardi Gras Indian rhythms, beats and chants with blues, Crescent City party tunes and contemporary jazz.
The tension that Harrison appears to have felt between tradition and innovation, New Orleans and New York, is dramatized in “Treme” through the story of the young horn player Delmond Lambreaux, played by Rob Brown, and his relationship with his father, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, played by Clark Peters.
In fact, an episode built upon a recording session, in which Dr. John makes a guest appearance and Clark Peters’ Big Chief Albert Lambreaux supplies vocals, appears to have been based on the recording of “Indian Blues,” on which Dr John played piano and Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr contributed chants to a version of Hu Ta Nay
Even as he was watching his biography become a story line, Harrison participated in the creation of Treme in other ways, as a consultant, actor and, of course, as a musician.
“My hunch is that Wendell Pierce, the actor who plays the trombonist Antoine Batiste and who’s also a New York artist with New Orleans roots, was the writers’ source for Donald Harrison’s story,” said Pines. “I don’t know if they intended to use as much that story as they did. Writers have a tendency to work with what’s at hand,” said Pines, who’s also a novelist and poet.
Whatever liberties the writers of “Treme” may have taken with Harrison’s life story, they caught the essence of his music, said Pines. “In Donald Harrison’s music, the traditions merge,” he said. “They exist in conversation with each other. The shamanic, trance beats of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes are incorporated into modern jazz. Harrison knows that music can’t remain static if it’s it to live. For a tradition to be maintained, it has to stay current.”
Harrison, who teaches jazz to young New Orleans school students through Tipitina’s Foundation, “understands himself as a vehicle for the transmission of the jazz traditions. He doesn’t mistake the power of the music for himself,” said Pines, who once owned a jazz club on the Bowery, was introduced to Harrison through his manager, an old friend.
“That became an opportunity to reach out to Donald and to invite him up here. Although he sometimes brings the Mardi Gras Indian tribe costumes with him, we don’t know yet if he’ll bring them to Lake George. The members of the tribes make their own costumes, by hand, and they’re very fragile,” said Pines.
Harrison and Congo Square Nation will take the stage at Shepard Park’s amphitheater at 7:30 pm on Saturday, September 15. On Sunday, at 4:15 pm, Harrison and his saxophone will return to the stage, joining Grammy-winning bassist-composer John Benitez.
The 29th annual Lake George Jazz Weekend, which is presented by the Lake George Arts Project with support from Kenneth and Susan Gruskin, the Village and Town of Lake George, local businesses, and the New York State Council on the Arts, opens on September 15 at 1 pm with a performance by the gifted Argentine pianist and composer Emilio Solla.