Harman Quintet Swings John L. Haar Theatre in MacEwan Music Grad Recital

Leah Harman MacEwan University Senior Graduation Recital

Image design by Raine Radtke

I’ve never seen a bad senior graduation recital out of MacEwan University’s music program, but none has ever hit me quite like Leah Harman’s.

In an hour that rightfully transcends most people’s perception of “student music,” the Harman Quintet didn’t just hit all the notes, they gave away for free a swelling experience so sublime that I felt like a thief.

Along with Harman, Brendan McGrath on the piano, Aretha Dangerfield on bass, Joel Jeschke on drums, and Dave Morgan on trumpet started punchy right away.

I found myself even more frustrated with rush-hour public transit than normal, as I was late to the show by three minutes. But even through the double-door airlock-like entryway of the John L. Haar theatre, I could hear Morgan and Harman’s sharp notes popping in the hook of “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan — and it only picked up from there.

The quintet spoke in the tight-knit musical voices of a clique

The musical performance was great in an odd way. It roused me, making me want to befriend the human strangers on stage. It was a bizarre feeling, because I do technically know two of the performers (Harman and McGrath), but from a musical standpoint the band’s skill set on display was foreign to me. This band spoke together in the tight-knit musical voices of a clique you’d die to be a part of.

In that way, my feeling had little to do with what you’d actually base friendly relationships on. Excluding the fantastically named Dangerfield, I’d be hard pressed if you asked me to spell the names of the trumpeter and the man on the kit without looking at the program, but it didn’t matter; their inviting music spoke for itself.

If you walked into this concert wearing a novelty pair of 20-pocket overalls, this band would find a glorious piece of syncopation to drop into every opening. And although I say their music spoke for itself, that’s not entirely true. This concert made for a wonderful listen, but watching the musical pros make sound was doubly entertaining.

Dangerfield’s manner while flitting through complex figures on her upright felt sensually simple to watch. It was as if she was making love to the strings and frame, contorting her face to settle into the infectious grooves of the band she was supporting. And when I think of the tenor saxophone, I think of a machine built for the purpose of speed. Whether Harman played it upbeat or mellow, her licks were as slick as they come.

Each soloist had a purposeful presence in their sound

What’s more, amongst each musician who took a solo was a purposeful presence in their sound and on the stage. Too often lost in the musical theory and rhythmic rudiments is the importance of a fulfilling solo’s trajectory. Every player on stage found their own route tonight. Whether they knew they’d find it or not, aided by the fills and supporting structure of their fellow members, every line felt like it built to a resounding thud: A perfectly timed musical period.

Those supports boasted excellent variety throughout the entire set, too. Between things like Jeschke’s sparse, yet rhythmic kit work, simultaneously on the crash and ride cymbals underneath a Morgan solo, or the overlapping swoon of McGrath’s comps, it felt almost impossible to tune out of these jazz standards. The exception came in a rendition of Isham Jones’ “There is No Greater Love.”

Halfway through the chart, my mind wandered towards my growling stomach — likely the only organ in my body not enraptured in the jazz on stage. My hunger vanished though, lost in the stops and starts of Hank Mobley’s “Take Your Pick.” The hook was so expertly emulated here, that it was easy to forget that this concert was an academic affair. It’d be a damn shame if Harman doesn’t squeak out top marks for her work tonight, for in the realm of music, I can think of few greater accomplishments than speaking meaningfully to the hearts of a live audience through your horn.

It’s impossible to talk about Harman’s hour-long accomplishment without mentioning her and McGrath’s original ballad, a duet. Dedicated to her grandfather, and framed by spotlights to cut through the ambient blue background, their soulful playing veritably compelled listeners to close their eyes and try not to wash away in emotion.

For Harman, I imagine a better tribute there never was 

It was a mournfully meandering back-and-forth between the pair, up and down their instruments’ range, both melodically and dynamically. I have never known Harman’s grandfather, but I imagine a better tribute there never was. You could hear the sniffles in the house as McGrath’s final chord faded away, and they weren’t just coming from Harman’s family. Even four minutes into the final performance of Joe Henderson’s “Granted,” tears were still streaming down my face.

If they have the will and a little pluck, it wouldn’t surprise me to see members of this band touring the globe to sold out clubs and festivals within a decade. If they make it there, I’m sure they’ll remember the stellar sendoff they played at the John L. Haar’s last season of MacEwan Music.

The bar has been set for graduation recitals, and I’m not sure anyone’s going to meet it any time soon.


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