CD Review of Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues by Don “Sugar Cane” Harris
Recommended if you like
Headhunters era Herbie Hancock, Bitches Brew era Miles Davis, early Santana
Promising Music
Don “Sugar Cane” Harris:
Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


he difference between good and bad fusion jazz is hard to describe, except that the bad stuff has too many Muzak-y keyboards and the guitars have no backbone; the solos turn into long, masturbatory meanderings that suggest an amateur jam-rock band who only knows a half-dozen tunes but need to play at least 90 minutes to earn their cut of the door. Or, in the case of (get ready for blasphemy) Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, total lack of coherence from start to finish. Luckily, Miles laid down the blueprint with In a Silent Way for the sound and structure of rock and jazz fusion, and amplified it into some very tasty rock stuff on records like On the Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. By the time his Man with the Horn came out, there were still some nice rockin' backbeats among the Van Gogh-ery of his trumpet, but even old Miles had lost his edge and was getting a little lite in the tuneage.

Against the backdrop of the late 1960s and early 1970s, jazz fusion hit its funky peak and soon devolved into long, lightweight noodling from musicians who had big names but had lost their way and bored all but their most involved students to tears. That, and Kenny G. Every once in a while, a new or lost recording from either a Miles sideman or someone orbiting in the same solar system comes to light, a funky rock thing with some hot musicians playing even hotter grooves.

Which brings us to Don "Sugar Cane" Harris, a little-appreciated blues violinist(!) who puts on a damn clinic in this live show, similar to what Hendrix must have done live with his guitar. A sideman for Zappa & the Mothers, R&B impresario Johnny Otis, and John Mayall, Sugar Cane wielded the violin like rock axeman did the guitar, playing aggressively and creatively (like, if you're looking for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," just move on already; there's nothing here for you to see). He's also a trivia question answer of sorts, having fronted the Pure Food and Drug Act, the band in which Victor Conte – later of BALCO illegal steroids fame – played bass during the 1970s.

This record documents Sugar Cane's 1971 Berlin Jazz Days festival gig with an ensemble that included Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, and it's a jazz jam in the sense that Carlos Santana played jazz; a rock jam in the sense that Jack Johnson was pure rock; and a blues jam in the same way the Allmans played blues. In other words, it's neither jazz, rock, or blues, but you can't say they're not, either. It's just a great early-1970s free-for-all with lots of hard beats, funky breaks, waca-waca guitar (and fiddle) wah-wah so prevalent in every music of the era. Just four cuts, running 10-15 minutes each: "Liz Pineapple Wonderful," which sounds like Woodstock rock, pure and simple; Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," the composition whose beat Steely Dan lifted for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" as well as Meat Beat Manifesto in "Hello Teenage America"; the title track, some sort of country-blues jam off on Mars that probably gave the Allmans and Lynyrd a melodic idea or two for their own solos; and "Where's My Sunshine," a psychedelic rock thing that would have fit in the middle of a Hendrix gig for sure. It's not all instrumental, either: The guy sings well, along the lines of Billy Preston's soul-rock style. Overall this is a great little undiscovered record, way too raw-yet-intelligent for most rock fans, and too down-and-dirty for jazz aficionados. In other words, just right for the rest of us.

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