Album Song Clips
Washington D.C. native Joel Harrison resists musical categorization. For those who know his work as a jazz guitarist and composer, Harrison’s vocal talent will come as a surprise. Harrison’s worn, bluesy voice is used to great effect in material that entertains even as it grapples with deep issues. Harrison’s sound stems from a love of American song combined with unusual instrumentation from around the world. Passing Train (Tuition/Pure Land) was produced by Ben Wittman, who is well known for his work with Jonathan Brooke and Lucy Kaplansky. It continues along a path first suggested by his 2003 release, Free Country, which featured Norah Jones on vocals and was considered one of the best recordings of the year by many critics. Harrison paints a landscape in which all styles of American music commingle in haunting, poetic, thoroughly original ways. He is equally at home writing songs and complex chamber music, playing modern jazz and bar blues. Musicians on Passing Train include Ben Wittman, Jamey Haddad, Henry Hey, Stephan Crump, Greg Clark, Jen Chapin and more. All of these musicians draw from country, blues, gospel, jazz, New Orleans, and West African genres to create a unique sound.
“Harrison is onto something both innovative and compelling and deserves a much wider audience.”
- Don Heckman, LA Times
Joel Harrison on Passing Train…
This record was more difficult to make than any of my previous efforts, which seems at odds with the fact that it is the most overtly “Pop” cd I have made. The process of writing these songs, and then re-writing them over and over again, was often a kind of blood-letting. I doubted myself at many turns, partly because of what a crowded arena I am working in, but also because I tried especially hard in this project to speak from my heart. It’s not a confessional record- but it is intensely personal.
I more or less abandoned the bedrock of much of my previous work- jazz improvisation. I simply tried to write meaningful, soulful songs. Anybody familiar with my music will recognize certain eclectic traits that carry over, but the focus here is on a love of simple song structures that has been with me since I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Stars Fell on Alabama” and Lennon sing “Norwegian Wood” when I was six or seven. In songwriting time is infinitely compressed, everything is stripped to its raw basics. At its best (Merle Haggard) an entire life is exposed in 16 lines and three minutes. A song is both the easiest and the hardest thing to compose. This may be why there are so many that are mediocre, and the few that are great transcend all boundaries and touch millions equally. My inspiration has come from all over: The Allman Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, West Africa (esp. Mali), The Grateful Dead, Appalachian music, Indian bhajans, Caetano Veloso, Randy Newman, Ray Charles, Albert King, James Taylor, and so many more. Most of these songwriters come from a time when jazz, R&B, country, and soul all intertwined.
“Mr. Harrison is a jazz-trained guitarist and composer, but on his new album, Passing Train, he steps into the position of a roots-haunted singer-songwriter with a knowing, yearning tone.”
- Nate Chinen, NY Times
I must share with you, supporter and critic alike, how hard it was to be the singer on this collection. Of all the jobs I have chosen, composer, guitarist, or arranger, singing has been the most intimidating. I have sung my whole life, but only recorded as a singer more recently, beginning with the Free Country cd. It’s a terrifying business; however, there was no way around it. Six years ago when I began writing this material, my plan was to enlist someone else as lead vocalist. I went so far as to record four songs this way, but it was not to be. With encouragement from others I saw that I could bring a certain authenticity to the endeavor, technique aside, and I mean it when I say I hope I have done justice to my own work.
We live in a time when an overwhelming number of people express their private thoughts publicly. Part of this is due to advances in technology, part to the contemporary attractions of individualism, part to the astonishing way in which corporations learned to acquaint greed with art, and partly, of course, because of a true desire to make meaningful art. What I come back to over and over again is the feeling I get when the marriage of words and music is magic. It’s unlike any other feeling I know. It makes the world seem graspable for a moment. I love a great song more than any other form of music, and so while the process has been at turns dark, complex, and confusing, the end result feels as rewarding as anything I have ever done.