This is Joel Harrison’s second CD on the ACT label, a followup to his hugely successful Free Country release of 2003. Once again Harrison travels along the seams of Jazz, Country, Blues, and Spirituals, using country classics, hymns, and folk tunes as a gateway to creative music making. Harrison has included his own compositions on this release, side by side with gems by Merle Haggard, Jimmy Webb, the Stanley Brothers, as well as timeless traditional tunes. Harrison’s singular arranging style and the improvisational talents of his band create a dramatic atmosphere full of compositional surprises, gorgeous, moody textures, explosive soloing and quiet, intimate detail.
Harrison’s all-inclusive musical language has deep roots. He grew up in a time when artists as diverse as Miles Davis, the Band, and the Country Gentleman might appear on the same bill. There were free format radio stations where stylistic collisions were common. It was a time when people like Jimi Hendrix and Cream experimented with combining short songs with long, intricate instrumental escapades.
In the Free Country project Harrison combines the heart of great vocal melodies with the delicious surprise of improvisation, treating traditional American songs as vehicles for discovery. Harrison’s take on this material is always original whether through reharmonisation, ingenious textures, rhythmic variations, or radical dissection. Through it all he never loses the soul of the song.
How does one categorize this music (if indeed it needs categorization at all)? There are several songs (So Long Second Street, The Water is Wide) that have no improvisation, and many arrangements that suggest that this is a singer/songwriter’s effort. However, there are ripping solos (Shady Grove), open sections reminiscent of Coltrane (Oh Death), or Miles (White Line Fever), and the approach to the arrangements is loose and live. And, of course, in live performance the songs are different every time. Todd Isler’s percussion brings in hints of African and Indian music, while Gary Versace’s accordion suggests bittersweet memories from a bygone era in Europe.
A fervent hallelujah (I Am The Light) sits beside a bluesy lament (Midnight Train), a bruised ballad (Galveston) sits beside an improvisational odyssey based on a fiddle tune (Shady Grove). The title tune So Long Second Street could be a hit on triple A radio, reminiscent of Springsteen or Robbie Robertson, while at the other extreme White Line Fever evokes Miles Davis’ Bitch’s Brew. Many of the songs are about the darker aspects of life, break ups, death, midnight trains, loneliness, longing. Other songs suggest redemption and faith. Harrison’s vision and his voice tie it all together; to him it’s all American music. Harrison and his stellar group do not seek to tell new stories, but to tell old ones in a new way.
1) Riding on the Midnight Train (C. Stanley)
This Stanley Brothers classic tells an age old story of loss. The arrangement journeys from the brooding opening, a bluesy West African guitar vamp, to a set of double time solos, returning back to the opening theme. The tune Train Don’t Ride from the Harry Smith Folk anthology makes an eerie appearance at the end.
2) Galveston (Jimmy Webb)
I read that Jimmy Webb wrote Galveston as a veiled anti Vietnam war song. It finally made the song make sense to me. I always loved the melody and feeling in the tune, despite the astonishing over production in Glen Campbell’s original. I decided to try to strip it to its core, and bring out the desperation and darkness in the story. Given events in Iraq it seemed timely. We end with an extended sax solo whose tone suggests the despair of war.
3) Shady Grove (trad.)
There are countless versions of this ancient tune. The opening is taken from Clarence Ashley’s version while the next phrase is from Bill Monroe’s frighteningly uptempo version. Uri Caine and Dave Binney play burning solos and the coda features intense unison lines reminiscent of fiddle music. It’s a playful song, that nonetheless contains a hint of melancholy.
4) I Am the Light of This World (trad.)
I was reluctant to sing about Jesus, being an avowed agnostic. But I love Reverend Gary Davis’ version of this song, and I believe the message is universal. The Total Praise Gospel Choir from Fort Green, Brooklyn raises the roof in an arrangement that builds slowly, like faith itself, from the downbeat to the end. The National Steel guitar anchors this tune.
5) I’ll Fly Away: (trad.)
I tried to arrange it in a way that suggested flight, building the piece from a quiet reflective beginning to the soaring Binney solo at the end. I was inspired by Pat Metheny’s composing for this one. He is a master at taking a simple tune and building an intricate composition from it. Bird sounds at the end.
6) So Long Second Street (Harrison)
I could never, and will never write a break up song to match this. It’s probably the best song I’ve ever written.
7) Waterbound (Harrison, Binney)
The Appalachian singer Roscoe Holcomb inspired this. He performs a song called Boat’s Up the River that has no time signature, yet drives incredibly hard, sounding like African music, with a hair-raising, eerie vocal. To me this is the most original tune on the cd, with its trance rhythms and guitar effects. Blues of the future?
8) The Water is Wide (trad.)
One of the oldest, most eloquent folk tunes. When you go deep into the inner places in your heart and soul, the longing this song evokes gets pretty real.
9) Time Flies (Harrison)
I wanted to break things down into a smaller unit, to get that chamber/folk/jazz feeling that Cassandra Wilson has perfected. The bass is freed up since I’m playing baritone guitar, and by the end it feels like we’re levitating.
10) Oh Death (Trad.)
Taking on this monumental song was not an easy decision. The way Ralph Stanley sings it, makes you never want to hear it done any other way! And the words cut to the bone. I decided to approach it like Coltrane might, as a quiet, open, slightly menacing meditation, that features a gorgeous reflective solo by Binney. Of course, countless great American songs from way back deal with death. Curiously very few new ones do. Why?
11) White Line Fever (Haggard)
If you’ve ever done extensive driving, day after day, this trucker’s song makes a lot of sense. You go a little crazy on the road. Last summer we did a 13 day tour where I drove a total of 3500 miles and by the end felt quite close to breaking apart. So the feverish attitude in this song is about that feeling. I just said to the band, “Play like Bitch’s Brew.”
12) Wichita Lineman (Jimmy Webb)
A beautiful tune, played slow and lazy, again trying to bring out the melancholy and longing in the words. I love the sound of the frame drum and B-3 organ on this. It reminds me of the way we did Lonesome Road Blues on Free Country the first.