A restlessly creative spirit, Joel Harrison has thrown himself headlong into half a dozen challenging and wildly disparate projects since moving to New York from the Bay Area in 1999. “I have far-ranging interests and I have a voracious musical appetite,” explains the prolific guitarist-composer-arranger. “And I work fairly quickly once I get going on an idea.”
Harrison has juggled quite a few ideas in recent years. One that put him on the map, in terms of critical acceptance, was 2003’s Free Country, in which the guitarist and a kindred crew of New York musicians offered highly impressionistic takes on Appalachian tunes and old country songs. That mesmerizing project garnered so much acclaim, in fact, that it has practically overshadowed equally ambitious offerings like 2005’s Harrison on Harrison (HighNote HCD 7147 — his radical reinvention of the music of the late George Harrison) or subsequent, as-yet-unrecorded projects like his stirring extended chamber work The Wheel and his recent String Choir playing the music of Paul Motian.
“I would like to think that people will have heard a number of my projects and not just one or two,” says the native of Washington D.C. who studied music at Bard College and also lived in Boston before relocating to Berkeley, California, where he was based for 12 years before coming to New York.
This latest Harrison offering was jointly commissioned by the French Cultural Alliance and Chamber Music America and prominently features the remarkable French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê, renowned jazz drummer and world music percussion master Jamey Haddad, frequent collaborator David Binney on alto sax, and French bassist Gildas Bocle. As with all of Harrison’s music, the compositions on Harbor cut a wide stylistic swath, incorporating elements of Indian and African music and American vernacular with jazz harmony and heightened modal excursions, bits of swirling psychedelia, touches of funk, chamber-like delicacy and full throttle electronic skronking.
An exacting auteur, Harrison invariably strikes a rare balance between a through-composed aesthetic and freewheeling improvisation in his work. “One of my missions is to bridge those worlds in different ways,” he says. That sentiment is shared by Binney, a composer and bandleader in his own right whose passionate alto playing has been a major asset to Harrison’s last three recordings. “I really believe he’s one of the best sax players on the planet,” says Joel of Binney. “He has an enormous vocabulary. No matter what I throw at him — atonal, tonal, country, funk, written or free — he plays it all beautifully.”
The other secret weapon here is Lê, whose uncanny, Holdsworthian legato phrasing and liquid whammy bar articulations, combined with his signature non-tempered statements on the instrument, mark him as one of the most outstanding electric guitarists around today. Harrison, a wonderful player himself on guitar, is a worthy six-string partner on the frontline. “The focus is on the sound of two guitars,” he says, “and it was fun in that respect because the guitar is immensely versatile, and Nguyên and I share a lot of the same influences and musical goals.”
There’s a distinctly Indian vibe on the suite-like opener, You Bring The Rain, though Harrison hesitates to catagorize it as ‘world music’ or ‘world fusion.’ “I hate thinking of it that way,” he says. “Once you start using those labels it conjures these awful images. Instead, I see a variety of dialects being absorbed into the jazz language.” While Binney wails with uncommon authority in a South Indian (Carnatic) vein, Haddad underscores the action by switching from the kit to kanjira and then udu drum, which sounds like an Indian ghatam. Lê adds his own exotic ingredients to the mix with his inventive use of slurs and microtonal trills on the guitar, at times sounding like a vina player or an electric mandolinist (U. Shrinivas from John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti comes to mind). “Asian and Middle Eastern music are a substantial part of Nguyên’s vocabulary and Jamey’s vocabulary,” says Harrison. “My job, then, was to set them up so that they could manifest that.”
“Blue Ghosts of Bourbon Street is a multi-faceted reflection on New Orleans,” says the composer. “New Orleans traces part of its musical roots to 12th century France and that’s reflected in the opening groove, which is taken from a troubador song from that period. The haunting melody reflects some of the darkness that has been part of life down there, but then gives way to a bridge that’s got more of a triumphant second line feel. There’s no soloing in the middle. Everybody plays rhythmically over the opening percussion feel and refracts different pulses off it.”
Harrison’s guitar solo here is imbued with bluesy abandon and nasty intentions. “That’s something that I don’t get a chance to do enough of,” says Joel. “I don’t know if people even know I have strong roots in Duane Allman and Albert King.” This richly evocative piece culimates with an ominous sounding tag, reflecting past and present all in one.
End Time, explains Harrison, is heavily influenced by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. “I took phrases from his Quartet for the End of Time and just used them to create a jazz vehicle.” Nguyên and Joel erupt with some gloriously unhinged skronking here that recalls the dense sonic shrapnel of Miles Davis’ Agharta.
The Refugee is a moody, atmospheric piece that features some snakey slide guitar work by Harrison which is complemented by Binney’s keening alto statements. “Again, there is no soloing, explains Joel. “There’s a head in and a darkly reharmonized head out, then a middle section which touches on the Indian concept of layered time with the instruments playing in two different time signatures and repeating a phrase over and over again.”
The dramatic, extended composition Hudson Shining opens with shimmering piano arpeggios by Henry Hey against a lyrical line doubled by Harrison’s guitar and Stephan Crump’s bowed bass. Binney and Harrison unite for unison lines on this surging, through-composed piece. Joel’s soulful, warm-toned solo is particulary effective here while Binney kicks in a dynamic, showstopping solo of his own, building to an ecstatic peak against Satoshi Takeishi’s freewheeling pulse.
The title track is a dreamy ballad that Harrison describes as “a combination of Marvin Gaye and Bill Evans, because it’s got all this harmonic movement mixed with the feeling of an R&B ballad.” Joel affects a pedal steel sound with his Telecaster and a volume pedal. He also brings in a different guitar texture by playing a gentle nylon string acoustic passage mid-way through the piece.
The darkly evocative American Babylon was originally conceived for a soundtrack that Harrison did several years ago. “I wrote that for a documentary called American Babylon, about the ravages of Atlantic City. Obviously the title has new meaning today. The original piece had a much quieter feel to it but we revved it up here.” Midway through the piece they break into a nasty funk vibe with Nguyên manipulating a Kaoss Pad, which effectively simulates turntable scratching. “It’s an effect that DJs use but some guitar players use it too,” explains Harrison. Lê proceeds to play a searing solo, “so the piece goes from quiet and menacing to the sound of artillery fire by the end of it.”
The collection closes on an uncharacteristically bright note with Brothers in C Major, which shifts between darkness and light/major and minor motifs. “That’s the simplest piece on the record, just a beautiful melody with some nice changes,” says Harrison. “It’s one of my more uplifting tunes.”
Together these musical renegades cover a whole gamut of tones, textures and flavors on Harbor, which stands as Harrison’s most potent, provocative and fully realized recording to date.
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines. He is also the author of JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Backbeat Books)