Joel Harrison String Choir – The Music of Paul Motian – Sunnyside Communications

by | Aug 20, 2011 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Joel Harrison String Choir – The Music of Paul Motian – Sunnyside Communications SSC 1273, 55:06 ****:
(Christian Howes, Sam Bardfeld – violin; Mat Maneri – viola (tracks 1-4, 6, 9-10, 12); Peter Ugrin – viola (tracks 5, 7-8, 11); Dana Leong – cello; Joel Harrison, Liberty Ellman – guitar)
During his music career Joel Harrison has worn many hats: guitarist, composer, arranger, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader. He has melded jazz, classical, country, rock and world music and been inspired by fellow musicians such as Miles Davis and Charles Ives and writers like Walt Whitman or Jack Kerouac. As an inventive arranger, Harrison has previously delved into the work of musicians such as Beatles guitarist George Harrison. And over the last decade Harrison has been an improvisational music pioneer, following paths which are different than most jazz guitarists.
Harrison’s latest sojourn, The Music of Paul Motian, reimagines the drummer’s compositions in a strings/guitar context, providing a distinctly innovative sound to Motian’s material. While everyone from Charlie Parker to The Kronos Quartet has attempted to use or incorporate a string section into a jazz idiom, Harrison does something complex and unique: he allows a string sextet to move between improvisational spontaneity and formalized notation, using both group and individual soloing, where chance and strictness function together.
The musicians were handpicked, since Harrison needed artists who were already able to cross stylistic barriers. The team he built from scratch includes violinists Christian Howes and Sam Bardfeld; violists Peter Ugrin and Mat Maneri (who alternate from track to track); Dana Leong on cello; and both Harrison and Liberty Ellman on guitar. The absence of a traditional rhythm section also means the strings take on that role as well.
Harrison opens with meditative “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago,” which commences with an austere dialogue between violin and cello with an underlying, ghostly guitar ambience. The tune’s aspects alter, ebb and flow, the tempo changes, but the arrangement preserves a pensive characteristic, with guitar and strings moving in unison and pushing against each other.
One of the surprises is “Drum Song,” where the strings translate percussion patterns in unusual ways, with bows scraping, fingers and hands pounding or tapping on wood and the use of staccato notes to replicate the rhythmic beat. The highlight is a midpoint flare-up which demonstrates the group’s intuitive attributes, as separate instruments boil up to near cacophony and then others take their place, and then everyone frenziedly participates in the tune’s angular theme.
Harrison also revises Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso,” because Motian has frequently performed the famous jazz standard in concert with his trio. Harrison crafts a dissonant showcase for strings and twinned guitars which focuses on a pizzicato melody. This is provocative music where Harrison creates an environment which requires an involvement and appreciation for modern jazz which takes chances. Harrison then turns to Scott LaFaro‘s “Jade Visions”– a piece which Motian has not included on any of his records, but which he did perform onstage with pianist Bill Evans. Harrison interprets this as a tender elegy, blending a colloquial strings/guitar interaction with extemporaneous elements and thus producing the album’s most eloquent number.
Motian is known as a superb colorist who conveys nuance and subtlety to his compositional efforts and his regular role as drummer in numerous settings. Harrison brings this trait to life during “Mode VI,” which has a floating and drifting facet, where the strings mostly remain quite lucid and cogent, with percussive effects taking the place of Motian’s drum kit. A similar repose accentuates the elegant “Etude,” where Harrison (or maybe Ellman) replicates Bill Frisell’s country inflection (Frisell has often worked with Motian and vice versa) while the strings shimmer and stretch a skeletal melody.
On The Music of Paul Motian, Joel Harrison supplies an expansive, sometimes intimate and generally unconventional dimension to Motian’s textured and ambitious music and in the process allows listeners to reevaluate Motian’s compositions in a fresh and intriguing way.


1. It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago
2. Drum Music
3. Cathedral Song
4. Misterioso
5. Mode VI
6. Owl of Cranston
7. Jade Visions
8. Split Decision
9. Etude
10. Mumbo Jumbo
11. Conception Vessel
12. From Time to Time
— Doug Simpson

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