CD Review: "Urban Myths" by Joel Harrison

Urban Myths

By Dr. Matthew Warnock, Modern Guitarist

Urban Myths is an exciting and innovative modern jazz record by New York based guitarist Joel Harrison. Accompanied by some of the idiom’s leading musicians, including Christian Howes, violin; Daniel Kelly, keyboards; Stephan Crumb, bass; Jordan Person, drums; and the ever brilliant David Binney on alto sax, Harrison delivers an album that blurs the boundaries separating jazz, rock and funk in an experimental and highly enjoyable fashion. While fusing musical genres has long been a popular custom in the jazz world, Harrison presents a unique approach to the realm of jazz fusion. His highly developed rhythmic sense, alongside his ability to write convincing melody lines, allows Harrison to present an album that pushes boundaries without isolating the audience.

All of the compositions, with the exception of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” were written and arranged by Harrison. While there are moments that bring to mind similar ensembles such as Jim  Black’s AlasNoAxis or Brian Blade’s Fellowship recordings,  Harrison’s writing reveals a composer who is both aware of his contemporaries while consciously setting forth into new sonic  territory. Tunes such as “Mood Rodeo” and “You Must Go Through a Winter” are some of the best examples of Harrison’s personalized compositional voice. Both tracks feature multiple melody and  improvisation sections, which are often accompanied by a completely new rhythmic, as well as harmonic, backing. By approaching these, and other, pieces as compositions, and not merely blowing charts, Harrison develops a new layer of interest within each tune. Yes, there are exciting and adventuresome improvised solos throughout the album, but what makes these moments successful is that they are presented as one part of an overall work, and not just a solo between the in and out head.

Alongside his ability to create sectional diversity within his pieces, Harrison has a knack for knowing the musicians in his ensemble and when and where to feature them in order to bring the maximum amount of creative energy to a piece. There are several tunes, such as the aforementioned “You Must Go Through a Winter,” where the guitarist isn’t featured as a soloist. Instead, the piece features memorable solos by both Howes on violin and Binney on sax, with Harrison relegating himself to the rhythm section. This decision, to feature the other lead players during the album’s opening tune, shows a level of musical maturity and leadership in Harrison that is felt throughout the rest of the recording. It is evident that the music and the overall concept of the piece is much more important to Harrison than using the record as a showcase for his guitar playing, which goes a long way to the overall success of the work as a whole.

Harrison does pick his moments to step forward and feature his improvisational ability during the solo sections of several tracks on the album. Of note is his solo on the album’s title track, which features Harrison improvising over a quasi-second line groove through a wah-wah pedal. His solo is short and to the point with a level of focus and sense of development that blurs the line between composition and improvisation. Harrison’s solos often come across as melodic extensions of his compositions, which is a testament to his ability to see the overall picture of a piece when writing and improvising. Using his solos as a complement to the tune and not writing tunes to complement an impressive solo is one of the reasons Harrison is able to create and maintain a high level of interest throughout the album.

The ensemble that Harrison has assembled for Urban Myths is absolutely first rate. While all of the band members deliver solid performances, saxophonist Binney is stellar and produces some of the most memorable moments on the album. Binney has the uncanny ability to deliver complex and harmonically sophisticated lines that are not only intellectually engaging but highly emotional as well. His ability to deliver long complicated runs with an incredible amount of emotional engagement, while displaying his absolute command of the entire range of the horn, raises his solos to the level of the genre’s greatest saxmen. In particular is his solo on the opening track “You Must Go Through a Winter.” Here, Binney builds from short melodic and rhythmic motives, increasingly raising the intensity level as he goes, until he reaches the climactic finale of his solo. It is moments like this that only reaffirm Binney’s position as one of the finest saxophonists on the scene today.

Urban Myths is a collection of inventive and engaging pieces featuring a tightly knit ensemble of some of the genre’s top improvisers. Harrison has done an excellent job of putting together the right ensemble for this project and the results are impressive. The compositions are creative, the solos inspired, and the ensemble breathes as one throughout the album. What more could one ask for in a modern jazz guitar album?

Track Listing

  1. You Must Go Through a Winter
  2. 125 and Lenox
  3. Mood Rodeo
  4. Last Waltz for Queva
  5. Straight No Chaser (variations)
  6. Between the Traveler and the Setting Sun
  7. Urban Myths
  8. High Expectation Low Return

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