JOEL HARRISON ‘Search’ = JOEL HARRISON: Grass Valley and Beyond; A Magnificent Death; All the Previous Pages Are Gone; The Beauty of Failure; Whipping Post; O Sacrum Convivium; Search – Joel Harrison, guitar/Donny McCaslin, tenor saxophone/ Gary Versace, keyboards/ Christian Howes, violin/ Dana Leong, cello/ Stephan Crump, bass/Clarence Penn, drums – Sunnyside Records SSC1300 MS 1258, 58:08 ***:
This new release by guitarist and composer Joel Harrison and his band, The Joel Harrison 7, is bit outside my usual listening fare and expertise. All the better because I liked it!
Harrison and his group are very gifted performers and exhibit some really strong virtuoso playing as individuals as well as a tight coherent ensemble sound. Joel Harrison writes and arranges all the material in his albums and has an obviously open mind – and ear – for sources that inspire him. For example, his previous project, “Harrison on Harrison” uses a number of songs by George Harrison as jumping off points. There is an admiration for The Allman Brothers that Harrison claims and emerges in his reworking of the Allmans’ “Whipping Post,” for example. There is a bluesy-country feel to this – including a most authentic-sounding Hammond B-3 keyboard. The original serves as the main melody but is developed – at times, morphed – into some really nice progressive solo passages for cellist Dana Leong. The overall sound is great!
I was also quite anxious to hear how Harrison would handle the O Sacrum Convivium, a choral motet by the French twentieth century giant, Olivier Messiaen. The very idiomatically rich harmonies of the original are enhanced through Harrison’s guitar licks and some very tasteful piano accompanying by Gary Versace. The feel of the original emerges a bit with some soulful sax work by Donny McCaslin and I was impressed with the beauty of this rendition, although few would probably recognize the source material in any appreciable way.
I was actually immediately attentive and curious about what would come next after hearing the opening track, “Grass Valley and Beyond.” This extended work, with its pulsating strings, has a unique sound to it that reminded me just a little of some Chick Corea in spots. I really enjoyed this cut as well as the sound of “The Beauty of Failure,” which had some of the same qualities, to my mind.
The largest and most dense work in this very interesting collection, for me, was the fifteen minute A Magnificent Death. This moving, complex and attention getting piece bears its dark title from Harrison’s reactions to the death of a close friend. It is truly compelling to hear the arpeggiated strings and their minor ruminations which set the stage for a very nice, albeit dark saxophone solo in five meter for saxophonist Donny McCaslin. I really did enjoy this cut the most out of an impressive collection. The spinning sax and piano line is pushed forward by the strings and there is a very nice attractiveness to the whole. Even when the sax line gets a bit abstract with some extended techniques and improvising a bit outside the harmonic framework (and back again), it is a mesmerizing work and McCaslin’s work is wonderful!
I enjoyed the other shorter works in this program as well. “All the Previous Pages Are Gone” contains a terrific duet between violinist Christian Howes and McCaslin. The closing work, “Search,” provides a terrific spotlight for pianist Gary Versace. The harmonies and feel in this work are very creative—almost impressionistic. As Joel Harrison comments in the press release, Search refers not just to the sense of harmonies seeking a resting place but to the composer’s own sense of how he approaches music. Harrison clearly believes that all music can be impacted by, reflected on and inspired through the thoughtful absorption of all other music. In this case, Harrison is clearly writing in a jazz idiom but with some new and very compelling sensitivities.
As I mentioned, this is not a genre I am all that familiar with but I liked it a great deal. I suspect that the true progressive jazz aficionado would also enjoy this and find it well worth the search!
Pure Pleasure Records releases a re-mastered live vinyl of a great tenor saxophonist.