Guitarist Joel Harrison has been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) forging a path of adventure in modern music. Not necessarily content with arbitrary categories, he is discovering ways to utilize all the different musical streams of the world. He has used jazz improvisation as a starting point but it’s never the be-all-end-all, the kind of thing that draws more attention to technique than to storytelling. His musicianship and that of his cohorts is always of the virtuoso variety but what you come away with is something much more.
For The Wheel, Harrison’s motivation was, he notes, “a determination to make music that equally represents improvisation and notation.” It’s not necessarily a new idea, but in Harrison’s capable hands it does indeed feel different. Taking advantage of a new breed of string players – Todd Reynolds, Chris Howes, Caleb Burhans, Wendy Sutter – who are comfortable with improvising, he has created a suite that beautifully merges spontaneity and structure.
The first movement, entitled American Farewell, seems to say a sad yet spirited goodbye to the past. The strings, buoyed by a rhythm section of bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Dan Weiss, are at the center of this lamentation yet with energy and passion make it also seem a greeting to something new. The strings here are never just used as backup to jazz instruments – that’s precisely the impasse that Harrison wants to avoid. In stunning fashion – listen to Harrison himself in their midst – they create a spiritual focus for Blues Circle, which utilizes African string music and a Coltrane-like fervor to tell its story. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi ‘sings’ a new blues in traditional jazz fashion with Horner and Weiss offering a powerful pulse and the strings never far out of the tale.
This suite often seems like a hymn – sometimes melancholy, sometimes celebratory – to America. It’s about loss but also about the power of the past and of diversity. Notably, all the players go from the notated to the improvised without clumsy bumps or awkward transitions. That works phenomenally well on the densely textured and wildly furious Rising. Here it’s saxophonist David Binney taking an impassioned alto solo but the band tackles some truly difficult ensemble writing to get to it; check out the glorious pizzicato section after the alto feature.
To underscore the sense of loss moving into something affirming, the suite closes with a memorial to an old friend of Harrison’s. In loss, he has learned to celebrate life, no matter how briefly it shines. Harrison wails a euology and the piece explodes in a frenzy of invention. His friend is alive in the music and all the players take part in the joyous wake. Never for a minute is the loss forgotten but the music offers promise and hope. What more can we expect?
— Donald Elfman: All About Jazz
“Guitarist, composer and occasional vocalist, Joel Harrison, never ceases to surprise me with the amount and diversity of projects that he is involved in. Over ten or so discs, Joel has continually evolved. The Wheel might just be his best effort yet, it is one this year’s best discs.”
— Bruce Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
“The Wheel’s greatest success is its absolute avoidance of division. This isn’t “jazz with strings,” or “classical music with improvising musicians;” this is fully integrated music that has elements of both but feels like neither. That Harrison has written a suite of music that denies all borders and views music as one large continuum alone deserves attention. The remarkable group of players who can effortlessly navigate this challenging and ground-breaking music only makes it an even more essential listen.”
— John Kelman, All About Jazz
“Definitions blur, and suddenly it no longer matters whether Harrison improvises or composes. Whether his playground is jazz, pop, folk, country, or classical it all comes down to this: imagination without limits.”
Joel Harrison | Innova Recordings
By Troy Collins
A wildly diverse improviser/composer/arranger with a penchant for unorthodox instrumental combinations, guitarist Joel Harrison has sustained one of the most unpredictable discographies of the last decade with his chimerical mix of jazz, blues, chamber music, African and Indian folk music, Appalachian tunes and old school country songs.
Nothing in his expansive output approaches the episodic grandeur of The Wheel however. A five part suite written for a combined string quartet and jazz quintet, Harrison’s long-form work succeeds where many similar experiments have faltered.
Early attempts to integrate classical forms with jazz improvisation can be traced to the seminal Post-War efforts of Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller. In the late 1950s there were few classical performers capable of extended improvisation, just as there were few jazz artists adept at sight reading. Today, those differences are vanishing. Harrison employs a stellar cast in his mixed nonet, which delivers one of the most fully realized hybrids of classical music and jazz in recent memory.
Harrison uses a varied palette on The Wheel suite, drawing from a wide range of musical traditions, including West African griot, Appalachian folk, neo-classical string writing, post bop swing and gospel-inflected blues. He avoids Post-Modern pastiche with a cohesive, multi-layered approach, simultaneously incorporating threads of seemingly disparate genres to impressive effect.
Inspired by the fevered cadences of Appalachian string bands, the ebullient opener, American Farewell, summons a kaleidoscopic sound world that quickly builds from a sonorous theme to heated contrapuntal interplay. Violinists Todd Reynolds and Chris Howes bow thrilling double stops driven by the relentless pulse of bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Dan Weiss.
The tranquil West African influenced polyrhythms of Blues Circle reveal traditional jazz elements with an expressively lyrical solo from trumpeter Ralph Alessi that navigates myriad changes in tempo, color and dynamics.
The lengthy Rising is a rousing tour-de-force; a fevered amalgamation of interweaving contrapuntal lines, multiple concurrent polyrhythms and knotty collective improvisation that coalesce into a chromatic mosaic. Alto saxophonist David Binney centers the movement with a breezy solo that gracefully builds to a dramatic conclusion.
The elegiac fourth movement, We Have Been the Victims of a Broken Promise, is heartbreaking; rarely are contemporary musicians so nakedly emotional in this era of irony and cynicism. The piece soars with bittersweet melancholy as the strings swell with plangent lyricism.
The suite concludes with Ceaseless Motion, an amplified variation on the opening theme that climaxes with a pungent alto solo from Binney. Harrison assumes an arranger’s role until the yearning post-suite closer, In Memoriam: Dana Brayton, where he takes center stage with a searing slide guitar solo of breathtaking splendor.
Harrison’s suite transcends “jazz with strings” cliches by virtue of his singular writing and a phenomenal interpretation by seasoned veterans. The Wheel is a major achievement for Harrison and one of the best records of the year, regardless of genre.