Joel Harrison’s musical journey has few parallels in modern music. Guitarist, composer, arranger, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader – Harrison deftly juggles all of these roles, melding influences from jazz, classical, country, rock, and world music. His expansive sound fits equally well in jazz clubs and concert halls – and the occasional dive bar across town.
For brevity’s sake it would be safest to call Harrison’s home base jazz, a descriptor that mutates to fit a staggering array of styles and approaches. He finds inspiration from music too often barred from admission into the jazz consciousness, taking his place in a tradition of exploration and interpretation that reaches through the open-eared reinventions of Miles Davis and Charles Ives to the American rhapsodies of Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, or Hank Williams.
“Ultimately you’re just trying to arrive at great music,” he says. “Sometimes the best methodology is to leave people to their own devices, and sometimes it’s best to write everything down. It’s that simple.”
Harrison’s success can be seen in the accolades he has received: he was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010, is a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition, has received grants from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, the Flagler Cary Trust, NYSCA, and the Jerome Foundation.
Photo Ned Rosen
Growing up in 1960s Washington D.C., Harrison became enamored with the inventive guitarists who were blazing the era’s new trails, such as Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. In his twenties, after graduating from Bard College, Harrison undertook what he calls “the classic Jack Kerouac search for America,” hitchhiking cross-country and exploring the rich diversity contained between its coasts. “I wanted to figure this country out.” Sure I was a little naive, yet that search still resonates in my music.
Throughout his journey disparate genres have met in surprising ways. His groundbreaking Free Country ensemble, released on the German label ACT, reimagines country and Appalachian folk music, while his Fojoto Trio with banjo player Tony Trischka and West African kora player Foday Musa Suso ties American roots music to traditional African songs. A new project Skin and Steel, with the young sarod master Anupam Shobhakar explores Indian music, jazz, and American roots.
A gifted arranger, he has also delved into the work of other composers – Beatles guitarist George Harrison, for instance, on 2005’s Harrison on Harrison (Highnote), or legendary drummer Paul Motian, whose repertoire Harrison arranges for string quartet and two guitars on his latest CD, String Choir (Sunnyside). No matter the source material, it is filtered through Harrison’s individual perspective, more an act of recomposition than arrangement.
Harrison’s most important mentors have encouraged his inclusive approach. He has studied western classical music with Joan Tower, Hindustani classical music with Ali Akbar Khan, jazz with Charlie Banacos, and the fusion of approaches with W.A. Mathieu and Ran Blake.
Perhaps the most vivid examples of his own take on such experiments can be found on Range of Motion (Koch Jazz, 1997) and The Wheel (Intuition 2008), which bridge Harrison’s interests in classical and jazz. The former was written for an octet with woodwinds featuring Paul McCandless and bassoon player Paul Hanson; the latter also integrates the composer’s country and world music influences, replacing the winds with a string quartet that includes violinists Todd Reynolds and Christian Howes, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Wendy Sutter.
His classical compositions include Life Force, a collection of duos for cello and violin performed by Wendy Sutter and Tim Fain, on Philip Glass’ Orange Mountain Music label and a 2007 solo for marimba which won first prize in the Percussive Arts Society’s worldwide competition.
The boundaries are further blurred in Harrison’s latest project, Singularity, which utilizes techniques of contemporary classical composers in compositions for a septet of modern jazz’s finest instrumentalists. The ensemble includes Christian Howes (violin), Donny McCaslin (saxophone), Dana Leong (cello), Gary Versace (piano), Stephan Crump (bass), and Clarence Penn (drums), taking their place alongside the likes of Nels Cline, David Binney, Norah Jones, Dave Liebman, Uri Caine, Jamey Haddad, and Dewey Redman on Harrison’s impressive list of collaborators.
What do you remember about your first guitar?
It was a nylon string. my first electric guitar made more of an impression. It was a Guyatone.
Why do you need music? Can we live without music?
Obviously we need music because it's one of the oldest behaviors on the planet. It's good to keep asking this question. What makes your music essential? Why does certain music last?
Which is the main pleasure of the guitar?
Loud and with a groove
Which work of your own are you most proud of?
Not sure- it's a work in progress, always
Where are your roots? What are your influences?
The early 70's approximately: Hendrix, Allman brothers, Garcia, Danny Gatton, B.B King, Wes Montgomery, McLaughlin, Doc Watson
How do you experience time in music? How do you experiment with time in music?
Silence is the master
Depict the sound you're still looking for, or the sound you'd like to hear.
Every piece conjures a different sound. I always want to create an opening in my audience- heart, soul, mind, spirit. Sometimes it's a river, sometimes it's a mountain, sometimes it's an old man staring at the water, sometimes it's a bunch of people getting wasted in a bar
How would you define the present time in musical terms?
Tell me one impossible project do you like to realize?
I'd like to write an oratorio- chorus and orchestra with electric guitar
A valuable advice that someone has gifted to you in the past?
There's so much...recently Allaudin Mathieu heard some of my latest music and he said. "Try making your written sections as wild and loose as the solo sections."
What's your fetish device in the sound chain?
Recently I rediscovered one of my first amps, a 1962 vibrolux amp. It's gorgeous, warm, inviting. Effects come and go but for some reason I just can't play without reverb. It just sounds bad to me without it! Why? I don't know. I love sustain. I like trying to sound like a violin or pedal steel.
Doug Carroll-elect. cello, Joel Harrison-electric guitar, Dave Mihaly-drums, perc., Tom Nunn-electro acoustic inventions, Rent Romus-alto/soprano saxes
What artist, living or dead, would you like to have collaborated with?
Perhaps Roy DeCarava or Ken Kesey
What’s your latest project about?
I've written a number of songs that I plan to record. They are not about jazz at all. Back to my songwriting roots in Beatles, Robert Hunter, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen etc.