Catching The Flow With Ben Harper And Friends

by Max Kaplan

benharper_inlandempire_150Award-winning multi- instrumentalist singer, songwriter, composer, producer Ben Harper has enjoyed a career spanning over four decades, with studio and live work presenting a dynamic range of genres, from true Americana folk to deep reggae. Harper began his career in the ‘80s as a teenager, playing slide guitar in the style of blues legend Robert Johnson. His first touring gig was with another blues legend, Taj Mahal. His first solo record, Welcome To The Cruel World, was released on Virgin Records in 1994.

In 2020, Harper delivered a true solo album, Winter Is For Lovers, that he’s recently followed up with full-band renditions of a couple of its songs. With the re-release of “Inland Empire” and “Joshua Tree,” Harper demonstrates a creative force with the help of some incredible musicianship from his friends, the revered Robert Glasper, Jimmy Paxson and Mike Valerio. Glasper, whose work contributed immensely to the fusion of hip-hop and jazz, shines in particular within Harper’s emotional compositions.

Harper blends powerful, gripping chordal progressions with soulful slide guitar riffs and tasteful touches from upright bass, acoustic piano, and brushes on the drum kit. The music flows wonderfully within itself, without one musician outplaying any other. This level of musicianship is only to be expected with names like these in collaboration, of course.

In “Joshua Tree,” Harper’s composition takes us from a small yet intimate slide guitar motif to a peak of full band intensity. Moments of flowing violin complete the emotion of the track. Harper sings with his guitar. Although the song is seemingly without meter in the first half, the musicians unfailingly keep the track moving without inducing boredom. When the cymbals enter signaling the climax of the song, the listener is treated to a pleasant, yet emotional crescendo followed by immediate resolution for the end of the tune.

Inland Empire” begins in a similar fashion, with Harper starting the track by exhibiting the chordal progression on his slide guitar. The band comes in rather quickly on this song, again without stepping on one another’s toes. The musicians find their own space quite nicely, as Harper’s slide leads them through yet another powerful melodic gathering. The song blends as though it were a jazz standard, with all musicians playing their own impressive melodic line, yet without overplaying. The song ends in the same way it began, with Harper’s slide bringing us to a quiet, yet emotional resolution.

Harper himself has said it’s hard to describe these songs as “B-sides.” Although the songs are full-band reiterations of already published solo Harper creations, they exist within their own space, and present new feelings and emotions. Any fan of Glasper or Harper will enjoy the outstanding musicianship on display in these two new recordings available now.

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