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Saxophonist Feels Rich in Spirit, Soul of Music : Jazz: Billy Harper, who will perform with the Mark Masters Orchestra, worries about expressing the truth, not about money.


Saxophonist Billy Harper plays music for a lot of reasons, but money isn't one of them.

"In this country, so many of us worship the almighty dollar," the New York City resident said in a recent phone interview. "For me, the real value is the creativity of the music. I'm supposed to be doing music in a real, truthful way. As long as I'm expressing the truth, I'm fulfilled."

What exactly does "expressing the truth" mean?

"It can't be said in one word," said Harper, who, along with trombone giant Jimmy Knepper, appears tonight with the Mark Masters Jazz Orchestra at the Hyatt Newporter.

"I'm not playing something for commerciality. I don't see music as entertainment. It's about a soul-to-soul connection. If the music touches me, then I know it will touch other people."

Harper eschews the commercial aspects of music to the extent that he never performs one of his best-known songs, "Thoroughbred." Made popular on a recording by bandleader Gil Evans, the number is "too commercial."

"Instead of a hit that suits a trend or the masses, I'm more into creating a hit that hits inside the person, that touches the soul inside," he said. "That's the true value."

Harper, 50, is one of the most captivating improvisers in jazz. He emerged as a presence on the New York scene in 1965 and has played with many greats--among them drummers Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Max Roach, and large ensembles led by Evans, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. He believes he has a special gift for music and that many creative people go unrecognized.

"Sometimes we don't see it and nurture it," he said. "The gift has to be valued. In order to be nurtured, it has to be developed and then maintained, which means staying in touch with that creative force."

Harper stays in tune with his inner creativity by constantly thinking about music.

"It's a spiritual endeavor, which has to do with meditating and contemplating. It's entirely the way I live," the Houston native said. "Even my exercise routine is part of it. And when I am able to tap into what's inside me, the music just flows.

"Practicing is also part of the meditation. That's how I stay up on a physical level, doing the exercises, almost like academics. But I don't have to do it physically. I can also practice the horn, mentally, when I'm not touching it."

At the Hyatt Newporter, Harper will perform selections from Masters' "Priestess," a 1991 album that spotlights Harper and Knepper playing selections arranged by Masters, including five of Harper's compositions. The recording finds Harper in typically energized form, delivering peals of notes followed by long, extended ones that all but cry.

"I got the feeling playing with Mark that I have with a small band, where it's raw and alive," Harper said. "And Mark had a good sense of the tunes, arranging them mainly the way Gil Evans might have, with a big-band punch."

Harper describes playing with a big band as "working with an instrumental piano. In this perception, each horn is like a note on the piano. You get so many colors and timbres, it feels like you're playing with a big piano. Which is very exciting."

Harper said music "has always been a part of my being," and he recalled an uncle telling him he was singing along with Ella Fitzgerald records when he was 3. He got his first tenor saxophone at 11. "That was funny, this little bitty person with this big instrument," he said with a laugh.

Harper studied at North Texas State University in Denton, then moved to New York. He met Evans there.

"I was walking down Broadway and Gil came around a corner and I introduced myself and said, 'If you ever need a saxophonist, give me a call,' " Harper said. "He asked for my number, and a few months later he called, and that was my first job in New York."

He recorded several albums with Evans, including "There Comes a Time" and "Where Flamingos Fly," both of which have been reissued. In 1967, he joined Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

"Blakey had all the drive in the world," Harper said. "I kind of see myself as a drum person, I play with drummer's rhythms, so I loved playing with Art, and Elvin and Max."

Harper said his non-commercial philosophy has decidedly paid off. He works enough to be comfortable, performing mostly with his quintet, whose latest album is "Live in South East Asia, Vol. II."

"I've had a wonderful career, and it's had nothing to do with money at all," he said. "As long as I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to do, I feel so rich. And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of money came to me. But that doesn't matter. I feel rich without it."

* Billy Harper, along with Jimmy Knepper, performs with Mark Masters Jazz Orchestra tonight at 7:30 at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. $15. (714) 729-1234.

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