Joel Harrison, The Music of Paul Motian

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 01.14.11 in Reviews

Joel Harrison continues to create his own unique variant of Third Stream music, here using a "String Choir" that includes the classic instrumentation of a string quartet plus two guitarists (himself and Liberty Ellman), all of whom can hold their own in a conservatory setting but gravitate to iconoclastic hybrids in their work. They're certainly at home within Harrison's idiosyncratic arrangements of the compositions of ace drummer Paul Motian, who writes and plays in a manner that is both elusive and allusive, furtively beguiling. More specifically, Harrison favors the Motian pieces as performed with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, and Frisell's beautifully askance phrasing and yearning tonality are touchstones for many of these interpretations.

Ambushing enjoyable expectations with even more enjoyable innovation

Not that you can put these dozen songs in a single box. Some have explicit themes and counter-melodies somewhat typical of chamber music (albeit with jazz improvisations), such as "It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago," "Owl of Cranston" and "Etude." But "Drum Music" darts and whirls at the onset, settles into a "groove" that is both avant-garde and mildly Appalachian, then turns it over to a squirrelly, keening violin solo. "Mode VI" lets the silence in, wafting like a gossamer spider's web in the breeze. "Split Decision" has the soft gamboling of a litter of kittens lazily playing together. "Jade Visions," from Motian's days with Scott LaFaro and Bill Evans, features exquisite chordal strumming and feels like a subversive folk song. "Cathedral Song" has the grandeur implied by its title, with well-defined through-composition and empathetic solos. Jazz fans scrambling for purchase should first check out Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," one of the few non-Motian songs, which moves through a variety of soundscapes but has Monk's recognizable melody as a polestar.

In the end, whatever you want to call it, Harrison's music is what jazz is all about: ambushing enjoyable expectations with even more enjoyable innovation, while creating the right setting for group empathy and individual expression.