Joel Harrison: It's All Music

by Troy Collins

Joel Harrison                                                                                                             © 2019 Scott Friedlander

Joel Harrison’s artistry bridges the worlds of jazz, classical, Americana, and folk traditions from Africa and India. Based in New York City since 1999, but born in Washington DC, the guitarist began his search for new sounds in the early 1980s with stints residing in Boston and the Bay Area. He has had mentorships with Joan Tower, Ali Akbar Khan, Allaudin Mathieu, and Charlie Banacos, while his collaborators have included such luminaries as Dewey Redman, Dave Liebman, and Marty Ehrlich.

Harrison has issued well over a dozen CDs as a leader since 1995 and has appeared on Downbeat Magazine’s “Rising Star” poll multiple times. The New York Times called him “protean” and “brilliant,” while the New Orleans Times Picayune said “Along with Scofield, Metheny, and Frisell, Harrison has created a new blueprint for jazz.” Harrison has carried through on these accolades as founder and administrator of the Alternative Guitar Summit, a yearly festival established in 2010 devoted to new and innovative guitar-based music that aims to present and explore the guitar’s potential in all manner of genres. Pat Metheny, head of the AGS advisory board, called the Summit “one of the most interesting and distinguished forums for guitar on the planet.”

Named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010, Harrison is a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition and has received awards from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, and the Flagler Cary Trust, among others. In addition to exploring the myriad permutations of creative improvised music, Harrison has composed several non-improvised works as well: for orchestra; string quartet; solo cello; and percussion, including the PASIC award-winning marimba solo Fear of Silence.

Harrison’s latest release is Music from the Anacostia Delta, recorded by The Spellcasters for the newly revived Cuneiform Records. The Spellcasters celebrate the DC region-specific fusion of country, jazz, and rockabilly, exemplified by Fender Telecaster masters Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. In addition to Harrison, the band features guitarists Anthony Pirog and Dave Chappell, who are supported by Gatton’s former rhythm section: John Previti on acoustic & electric bass; and drummer Barry Hart. I interviewed Harrison in the spring of 2019, on the eve of the album’s premier.


Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your formative background. How did you get your start playing music?

Joel Harrison: I started playing guitar at age 10 because of the Beatles. In my whole life I have never been so struck with hero worship as I was at that age. I dressed like them, I wrote them letters, I learned their songs, or I pretended to play their songs with an early version of air guitar. My parents made me study classical guitar around the age of 12 which I continued until I was 17 or 18. I’m very glad I did that because it gave me good fundamentals and exposed me to a repertoire of great music, including Bach. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll continued to demand my attention and I was absolutely smitten with the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and Yes. Hendrix of course was the God who soared above all other mortals.

I started to listen to jazz in 10th grade and by 11th grade I was determined to learn what magic Coltrane and Miles were using. I started to study jazz guitar and got introduced to Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, etc. It was terribly difficult. Somehow, I stuck with it. Although I will say that I was never as devoted a student of the bebop language as I might have been.

TC: Did you have any influential teachers or mentors when you were first learning the guitar that made an impact on you?

JH: In the first part of my life I suffered from mediocre teachers. One thing you really see is that most of the players who are very good when they’re young have had great instruction. The first real guitar teacher I had was Mick Goodrick in Boston, for just 9 months, when I was 20 years old. I also spent a year studying with Jimmy Wyble when I was in school on the West Coast. What’s funny about that is I had no idea that he played with Bob Wills, and I later came to love that music. He was a pretty amazing man, incredibly humble and sweet, certainly under recognized.

I’d say my most influential teachers came late in life. When I finally studied with the eminent jazz teacher Charlie Banacos in my 30’s it changed my life in measurable ways. I think the greatest teacher I’ve had is Allaudin Mathieu, who I studied composition with for five years on and off when I lived in California. I was really lucky to find him, because he’s the first person I ever met who really understood my vision and knew how to suggest things I needed to give it a foundation. He wrote for Stan Kenton when he was young but ended up moving to California and doing all this amazing work bringing together traditions from around the world, classical music, jazz. He’s probably got the deepest grasp of harmony of almost anyone alive.

I would say though that mentors come in all shapes and sizes and I’ve had mentors who were closer to my age who influenced me when they taught me stuff on the bandstand or in my basement. In eighth grade I went to summer camp with a guy name Drew Zingg, who ended up playing with Steely Dan. He was just incredible back then, and clearly demonstrated for me how much I had to learn.

Then of course, there was Danny Gatton who I must’ve seen play 50 times when I was growing up in Washington DC. It’s really amazing to come full circle with that and be playing with people who worked with him. Every town has it under-sung heroes, but I’d venture to say that few of them had the complete mastery of Danny.

The other guy I should mention is Ran Blake. Other than Allaudin Mathieu, he’s one of the only people who I felt really understood what I was trying to accomplish at an early age and gave me the tools with which to realize it. Nowadays everybody is into everything, but when I was growing up to be into a vast variety of sound was considered very unusual. It’s kind of amazing that I felt this identity emerging when I was as young as 15 or 16. I always wanted to bring cultures and traditions together. It drove me from an early age. I didn’t just want to be a jazz player, or rock, or specialize in African music, or be a studio player, or just be a composer, or just be the bar band guy. I wanted it all. It took forever to forge an identity, but I think I finally did. I guess the jury may still be out on that! I will say that I still love a good bar band gig as much as writing, say, some epic big band piece. It’s all music.

TC: Concentrating on classical composition for a moment, I read that you worked with Joan Tower. As a fan of your large scale/neoclassical works (The Wheel, The Music of Paul Motian) I’m curious what working with Tower was like?

JH: She taught me a lot about focus and structure in composing. She is a great composer and teacher and doesn’t recognize boundaries between approaches, genres.

TC: Tell me about The Alternative Guitar Summit (founded in 2010). Although the festival includes innovative players who emphasize new and unusual approaches to the guitar, some dedicatees have had more mainstream appeal (Pat Metheny comes to mind), which is interesting. What was the impetus to start this event?

JH: I was asked in 2010 to do a three-day guitar festival at Cornelia Street Café. It was so much fun, and so interesting, I decided to continue with my own festival. I felt a need to honor some of the great players who were under the radar. So, in the beginning it was important to me to steer away from the big names because it was the medium names and the lesser names who needed the work and who are not getting heard enough in my opinion.

As time went on it seemed important to have as wide a palette as possible, from the most avant-garde, to people who are a little bit more in the mainstream of jazz. Still, even when we talk about the mainstream of jazz we’re not talking about Eric Clapton or somebody who is truly famous. In the past couple of years I featured better known folks like Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, and Ralph Towner, and it’s been incredibly exciting because they’re such icons, and they’ve done so much for the guitar world.

Basically, these concerts are an attempt to encompass all the many things that the guitar can do. Not every concert is supposed to reflect my personal taste or viewpoint because that would be boring. I try to make it all as unpredictable, as creative, and as thrilling as possible. And all of it on a ridiculous shoestring budget.

TC: How did The Music of Woodstock 50 Years Later at Le Poisson Rouge fare? It was slated to feature you performing the music of The Grateful Dead, Brandon Seabrook playing Ten Years After, and Nels Cline interpreting Santana, among many others.

JH: Woodstock 50 years after was a great success and amongst the most fun concerts I’ve ever been involved with. That music is as alive today as it was back then. The blueprints it made still feel fresh. I emphasized vocals to a large degree, while Nels had a battery of percussion doing the Santana material. Ben Monder played gorgeous renditions of John Sebastian and Anupam Shobhakar played the music of Ravi Shankar with great mastery. Scott Metzger, who is more new to me, played the crap out of The Who material. Brandon unfortunately fell ill and could not be at the concert.

TC: The last tribute was to Ralph Towner, and then there’s the Alternative Guitar Summit Camp this summer. Tell me a little about what you have planned for those gigs.

JH: The Ralph Towner concert was a revelation. His body of work is extraordinary, and I have to say largely unknown. He really is an amazing composer. The teachers at the alternative guitar summer camp this year are Mike Stern, Julian Lage, Ben Monder, myself, and Leni Stern. I’m really proud of this camp. There’s nothing quite like it out there where you have this kind of proximity to major players who straddle various styles and genres. It’s not a jazz camp per se. It’s a place to learn more about the guitar than most people will be able to absorb in their entire lives. It takes place at a gorgeous facility in the Catskills called Full Moon Resort.

TC: One of your current projects is Free Country. What inspired you to form an ensemble specifically to interpret Americana-based traditions?

JH: The free country project evolved simply because I love this music and I wanted to use it as an improvisational vehicle. Not too many people had done this so I felt it was fertile territory for exploration. The tunes from this tradition, Appalachian music, and old country material is timeless and speaks volumes about the history of our country. I find it’s a great receptacle for some of the things I do best.

TC: Similarly, The Spellcasters have their debut album scheduled to be released on Cuneiform. How did that group come about?

JH: The Spellcasters is a truly fun band that began when I met fellow guitarist Anthony Pirog who is from Washington DC like me. Anthony and I are like long-lost brothers because we like almost all the same music and frequently end up playing the same thing when we’re on the bandstand together at the same time. We played a gig together where we invited Danny Gatton’s old bassist John Previti to perform and John brought along another guitarist who knew Gatton – Dave Chappell. We all ended up playing together and had so much fun we started a band. We do some of Danny’s material, original compositions, and music from the telecaster songbook. The whole point is the three telecasters, which is quite a remarkable sound.

TC: As a composer and bandleader, do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

JH: I find both approaches are useful at different times. I think that any composer will say they are both writing to the strengths of the players, and create a landscape, where an improviser can be him or herself and find community in the other band members approaches.

TC: How about personal and stylistic dynamics? How do they shape the inner workings of your various groups?

JH: I think it’s a given that anytime you put a bunch of strong individuals in the room their personal attitudes and approaches will create both wonderful community and friction. Sometimes the friction leads to the best music. Usually as a band leader you are smart enough to invite folks to the table who you know will get along very well. In the event that you make the mistake of doing the opposite you’ll know soon enough and figure out how to remedy the situation. I feel very lucky that I live in New York and I’m surrounded by staggeringly talented musicians. All the people I play with are just incredible, it blows my mind.

TC: Although some find “jazz” too limiting a term, are there any new developments to the jazz tradition you find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

JH: I just try to do my own thing the best I can. I don’t really follow trends anymore, although I’m always interested in what people are doing.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

JH: I consider the studio to be the place where I shape my music into the vision that I aspire to. I don’t have any problem with fixing a few things here or there, or overdubbing, because the truth is few of us can rehearse or perform our music enough to get it to where we need to be before a studio session.

Playing live is a chance to open the music up from preconceived notions and generally ends up creating more magic than there was in the studio. I guess a lot of people wish we could tour for a month and then record, but that rarely happens.

TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry, specifically regarding archival documentation (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

JH: I’m not sure I have much to add that hasn’t been said already. Everybody’s income is down across the board, we’re in this bizarre period of flux where technologies are changing so fast nobody knows what to do to keep up. The thing I can say for sure is large corporations will never seek the benefit of the non-commercial musician. The bottom line will always be to their shareholder and the extremely wealthy people that they are trying to make money for. The type of music that I do, and that my friends do, always relied on the support of these bizarre and wonderful fanatics who continually give their lives to make what we do possible. The small record labels, the few journalists, the random grantmakers, the few and mighty fans. We’re on the margins, and we always will be, and I don’t see any sort of productive sea change in business models coming soon. I feel like we have a mission that’s not unlike somebody who joins a religious order. We do our work because we believe it is necessary, if we take a vow of poverty, so be it. We don’t really look for worldly success, just enough to keep the wolves from the door. I personally believe it is essential to document my work, and I feel really lucky that by and large I’ve been able to do that.

TC: Looking ahead, what immediate projects do you have scheduled for the future?

JH: I’m very excited because two long awaited recordings have been completed. The first was written for my Guggenheim fellowship, now seven years ago. I finally mastered the ability to document this 60-minute piece for classical percussion quartet, Indian sarod, and jazz quartet. It’s quite epic and required a lot of strategizing to document. I’ve also completed my second big band record entitled America at War. Each piece is inspired by events in my lifetime that involved the futile, tragic military conflicts that our nation has engaged in. That sounds pretty heavy, I know, however the music celebrates life – it’s not just about protest, and like all my projects it’s all over the map in terms of harmony, grooves, various soloists, and unusual orchestration. Between timpani, vibraphone, English horn, two bass clarinets, it really takes you a lot of places. I think it’s probably my best composing so far, and the level of playing by the 18-piece band completely blew my mind. With about one rehearsal and one gig these folks knocked it out of the park. That will come out on the Sunnyside label in 2020, and the other one will come out on Whirlwind recordings in the fall.

© 2019 Troy Collins

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