Someone once said something along the lines of, 'There ain't no jazz in a flute.â?� Maybe it was Buddy Rich. Maybe it was me. I don't remember, but what's important is that there are some instruments that just should not be introduced into the jazz vocabulary. The flute is one of them, no matter how many Roland Kirk records you throw at Herbie Mann's dead, hairy chest. Digital synthesizers and turntables are also high on the list of instruments of the un-jazz, but it goes without saying that never, under any circumstance, should a bagpipe make its way into your jazz collection. If the mellifluous nothing-notes of a flute seem the very antithesis of the improvisational super-consciousness that John Coltrane was shooting for, the shrill squeeze-tones of a bagpipe are just a haggis sack of goddamned ridiculousness, right? Well, perhaps in the hands of Herbie Mann they would be, but the quartet of albums released by jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley between 1966 and 1970 shows that the term 'jazz bagpiperâ?� isn't as oxymoronic as it may seem.
The limited-edition nature ' only 3,000 copies have been made ' of this two-disc presentation of Harley's four Atlantic albums indicates that his inventive instrumentation never penetrated the jazz consciousness like Kirk's did, which is unfortunate. Though Harley shared Kirk's miscategorization as a novelty act as well as his propensity for cheese-laden versions of pop songs (the version of 'Eight Miles Highâ?� included on this set is nearly as gag-inducing as Kirk's take on 'My Cherie Amourâ?�), he's seldom given the recognition that Kirk gets for attempting to expand jazz's palette without losing sight of the music's core values. When Harley digs in on his masterful, free-flowing 1967 album A Tribute to Courage with tracks like 'Ali,â?� 'X,â?� 'About Traneâ?� and, uh, 'Windy,â?� no man ever sounded blacker playing the bagpipes. Skirting free-jazz informality but keeping most of his playing firmly in the pocket, the soulful roll of these 28 tracks shows it doesn't matter what instrument you're playing, as long as your heart's in the right place.
Because, after all, Rufus played the flute too.