Minutes into the opening set of a June '99 performance by
at New York City's Soul Cafe
, pianist Orrin Evans
who, along with drummer Nasheet Waits, had trekked from the City of
Brotherly Love to check out the ensemble -- was moved
to smile and exclaim, "Now they
sound like a band
Not lost on Evans, first runner-up in the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Jazz
Competition, was that, in The Onus, bandleader and clarinetist Darryl
Harper had achieved something somewhat rare in the contemporary world
of modern jazz; namely, create a distinctive, sophisticated and engaging group sound.
In the context of a jazz marketplace in which individual virtuosity often overshadows cumulative aesthetic value, Evans' remark,
mundane on its face, conveyed a deep admiration for Harper's subtle,
but heady, achievement.
Subtlety and brashness are, in fact, characteristics native to the
soft-spoken, high-minded and mildly contrarian Harper, who began playing clarinet, as a six-year-old, at Philadelphia's Settlement Music
School. Prior to obtaining a master's degree in
jazz performance at Rutgers University, Harper had led bands both throughout
high school and while attending Amherst College where he earned a Phi Beta
Kappa key and summa cum laude honors in music. Animated by a love and admiration for the great working-bands (especially the ground-breaking Miles Davis quintet of the 60's) that achieved and sustained an exceptional level of musicality through empathetic communication,
Harper, in the summer of 1996, set out to form an ensemble in
the truest sense. The Onus -- Latin for "responsibility" -- is the irresistable result.
Fronted by Harper and fellow Rutgers jazz alumnus, guitarist Jeff Ray, The Onus achieves its singularly seductive sound
in part through its marriage of "throwback" instrumentation, recalling the legendary
Benny Goodman-Charlie Christian pairing, and a decidedly modern rhythmic and
harmonic concept. Adding to the eclectic mix, an extensive and
ever-expanding repertoire of original compositions, re-worked standards, and
arrangements of "imported standards" (eg., Stevie Wonder's "Too High") provides
fresh fodder for soulful improvisation, while exploiting the unusual tonal and textural possibilities
supplied by the band's five instrumental voices. Just as critical to the aesthetic result is the
degree of dynamic interaction within the ensemble. This "openness" is enabled both by Harper's imaginative writing and arranging and by
the genuine musical camaraderie that exists among Harper, Ray and a dynamic
rhythm section consisting, since 1997, of pianist Kyle Koehler, bassist Matthew
Parrish and the venerable Philadelphia jazz/funk drummer Harry "Butch" Reed.
Fortunately for those of us privileged to hear the results, Harper has created, in this band of gifted and genuinely artful musicians, a communal context that is conducive to expressing, in sincere artistic conversation, his own sophisticated and captivating voice. Much more than that, he has brought forth one of the most readily-identifiable and appealing group sounds on today's modern jazz scene.
For more about The Onus, visit the band's web site, at www.theonus.com.
"The Onus isn't a classic jazz quintet like a '55 Chevy is a classic car -- a vintage model
preserved in its pristine original state. The Onus is classic jazz like a classic suit --
full of classic lines and principles that always work no matter when it was cut or what the
fashion of the day. Led by Baltimorean Darryl Harper, the band sports a clarinet-guitar
front line right out of the old Benny Goodman small groups, but its dynamic group
improvisation and songbook (Stevie Wonder, anyone?) are right now."
-- Lee Gardner, Music Editor, Baltimore City Paper
, June 28, 2000
"The Onus . . . is an unusual jazz quintet in that it features neither saxophones nor trumpets. Instead, clarinetist-leader
Darryl Harper and guitarist Jeff Ray are backed by the rhythm section of pianist Kyle
Koehler, bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Butch Reed. This is the same instrumentation as the famous quintet led by Benny Goodman and Charlie
Christian, but [T]he Onus is more attuned to the post-bop modal sound of Miles Davis and
Bill Evans. This territory has been mined many times, but the unusual pairing of clarinet and guitar
gives [T]he Onus a fresh approach. The mellow sound of Harper's woodwind and Ray's
hollow-body guitar shift the emphasis from brassy or honking horn solos to more
impressionistic harmonies. Fortunately, Harper's writing is so richly melodic and so
refreshingly inventive that it provides rich raw materials for such harmonic development.
The Onus' new album, "Reoccurring Dream
" (HiPNOTIC), is an impressive step forward from the
quintet's 1997 debut release, "The Onus
." Harper explores the lower range of his clarinet
with sensual results; Ray pushes the rhythm along more forcefully, and new pianist Kyle
Koehler proves more assertive and percussive than his predecessor. The results mark
[T]he Onus as one of the most interesting jazz combos in the mid-Atlantic region."
-- The Jeffersonian
, Towson, MD, June 29, 2000"Reoccurring Dream""The Onus"