Interview: Joel Harrison

Dan Ouellette

By Dan Ouellette

on 04.16.12 in Interviews

In the liner notes to his impressive new album, Search, New York-based guitarist/composer Joel Harrison writes that he set out to challenge himself compositionally to “use extended forms and some new techniques…without sacrificing spontaneity, a tricky balance.” Best known as a jazz artist who has been exploring a variety of new approaches and genres over the course of his 15 albums as a leader, on Search, Harrison leans heavily on the influences of classical musicians (in particular Olivier Messiaen) whose music provided him with rich fodder to “avoid habitual [jazz] behavior…” The goal, he writes, was to envision a music that “demands its own design [where] any issues of style or tradition fall away.”

To negotiate the terrain of his intriguing compositions as well as two disparate covers (unusually sequenced back-to-back), Harrison assembled a stellar septet, comprised of tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, piano/Hammond B-3 organist Gary Versace, violinist Christian Howes, cellist Dana Leong, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Clarence Penn. The first two-thirds of the CD are complex long-form Harrison originals, highlighted by “A Magnificent Death,” an homage to a friend who passed away. It’s dreamy, eerie and beautiful with equal parts gravity, ebullience and resolve. The last third of the album takes an abrupt turn, with the end title song, a short co-composed beauty by Harrison and Versace, making the perfect lyrical end as the pianist tumbles and seeks in the solo setting.

Shortly before the album’s release party at the end of March atNew York’s Drom and then his retreat to the rural New Hampshire Macdowell Colony where he’ll begin working on his new compositions, Harrison talked on the telephone about the future of his musical journey beyond the confines of jazz.

Search dives deep from what you call a “more overt” convergence of jazz and classical into a gripping, rocking cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” followed by a tender tenor sax rendering of a Messiaen composition, “O Sacrum Convivium.” Why the changeups?

It sums up the spectrum for me. It’s not as if I had a master plan to do this. After I finished composing for the record, I realized I only had 40 minutes of music. So I wanted to fill out the project with pieces that I didn’t write. I looked for tunes that made for counterweights to the dense, intense, rich compositions at the beginning. So, I thought, let’s do something with a bite and that would put a smile on faces. I was a huge Allman Brothers fan when I first started playing guitar. So I gave “Whipping Post” a new arrangement with tenor sax in the mix. As for Messiaen, I’ve been smitten with his music and felt this piece with my arrangement was a good fit for a classical-oriented album.

What made you consider an eclectic music path over the years?

Part of it comes from the era when I was born. I was exposed to an array of music. I heard classical, and it was easy to fall in love with music of the ’60s. Great music was everywhere. I’m actually thinking of doing a project focusing on the music of the year 1970 when I was 13 and listening to Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Zappa, the Temptations and Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, plus the last Beatles’ record and their first solo projects. All of this was the avant-garde of its time. It was creative and it communicated. It wasn’t music from an ivory tower, but it touched you emotionally. There was a search for a new way to express. That’s what I grew up with. And that’s what I’m still looking for.

Why did you decide to connect with classical on Search?

The more composing I do, the more I listen to classical music. In some ways, I’m becoming less connected to jazz. I’m excited by the exposure to music that I don’t know and to experience the mystery in listening to it. For me, some of the mystery in jazz is gone. After all these years in the jazz world, I’m overjoyed with discovering new composers and how their music sounds so strange and new.

Has do you see jazz diminishing?

Even for someone trying to think out of the box in jazz, it’s so easy to fall back into the same ways of playing it. You can replace a chord or change the time signature, but that gets done all the time. I’m tired of the whole idea of presenting a melody, and then each member solos — free or over the changes — before returning to the melody. A lot of that sounds the same. With jazz, it’s supposed to be surprising, enlightening. But that seems harder to find.

So how did you approach a different way of expressing a jazz feel on Search?

For example, you’re not always hearing my guitar as the leading voice. There’s plenty of firepower in my group, especially with Donny and Gary. So I may not have to play a solo of my own after you’ve heard them play. I’ve done this on past recordings too. On [2008's] The Wheel, I didn’t play on half the pieces that were composed for jazz quintet and string quartet.

Just like on The Wheel, your originals on Search have a suite-like quality to them.

I like to think of the pieces, especially “Grass Valley and Beyond” and “A Magnificent Death,” as episodic journeys that keep surprising you with the directions they go in. The narratives aren’t necessarily linear. Again, that’s not how it usually goes in jazz, where you have the exposition of the theme — or maybe two themes — and there are the solos and return. It really is something that I want to fight against. It doesn’t have to be that way. In “Grass Valley and Beyond,” I allude to the theme at the end but not overtly. In “A Magnificent Death,” the architecture takes you to a lot of different places, and at times, there are three or four themes happening all at once. At the end, I wanted to create a real feel of arrival after not knowing where you had been.

And then you launch into a jazz swing on “All the Previous Pages Are Gone.”

Yes, that’s a JH rarity. Actually the piece is based on Messiaen scales. There are weird shapes in all the lines. And I structured chords out of those scales. Then I combined that with an interesting groove. I felt OK with the swing.

And there’s a guitar solo at the end.

A solo? Seriously, it’s just some fills.

You’ve certainly covered a lot of stylistic ground in your oeuvre.

I love almost all my albums, and they all represent my search. It’s a lineage that I’ve created. I have the jazz-classical-world music world with the new album, The Wheel and Range of Motion. Then there are the covers projects, with an entire album of arranged George Harrison songs [Harrison on Harrison], jazz-arranged country and Appalachian songs on Free Country and my album of Paul Motian compositions [String Choir]. I’ve written classical music for violin and percussion as well as did some singer/songwriter albums like Passing Train, and then of course, jazz-rock.

Being as all-over-the-map as you are, are there any styles of music you avoid?

Disco, hip-hop, heavy metal.

What would you like to do in the future?

I’d love to make a real country record. No funny chords, no long solos. It would be all about the songs, complete with twang and pedal steel.