Composer/Guitarist Joel Harrison Negotiates Contrasting Textures and Genres on his Stunning New All-Star Septet Album
Featuring Donny McCaslin, Gary Versace, Christian Howes, Dana Leong, Stephan Crump & Clarence Penn
Joel Harrison’s latest CD, Search, finds the critically acclaimed composer/guitarist challenging himself compositionally, using extended forms and techniques borrowed from many of his favorite classical composers. The end result transcends style and genre – the writing is stunning, and cements Harrison as one of the most important contemporary composers of the day.
The compositions flow seamlessly, instantly immersing the listener in a coherent, rich, dynamic sound world. Pieces such as “Grass Valley and Beyond” and “The Beauty of Failure” have rich, memorable melodies that stick with the listener long after the album ends. Complex rhythmic motion is a hallmark of the multi-layered, emotionally wrenching “A Magnificent Death,” which Harrison describes as the centerpiece of the record. This 15-minute mini-epic tells the story of a close friend who died in 2009.
The piece opens with an austere repeated arpeggio in the strings and piano, then transitions to a melody layered over a circular 5/4 groove. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin plays a spell-binding solo. From there the band dissolves into a compelling solo piano interlude from Gary Versace, that could easily stand on its own as a fully-notated keyboard piece. By the end all the various threads of the piece come together in a moving finale as virtuosic as it is cathartic.
Harrison is known for seeking unusual sources for cover tunes amidst his own composing, as on his George Harrison project Harrison on Harrisonand his truly “alt-country” project Free Country featuring Norah Jones, Uri Caine and longtime Paul Simon keyboardist/accordionist Tony Cedras. Few others could convincingly juxtapose The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” with a little-known 1937 choral motet, “O Sacrum Convivium” by 20th century classical giant Olivier Messiaen. Harrison claims he is not attempting any sort of grandiose statement by this apparent collision. “I simply love both pieces of music, and felt that their addition to the project balanced the four tunes I penned and added to the flow of the album.”
In fact, Harrison is deeply rooted in the music of The Allman Brothers, among others. “Live at the Fillmore East has been one of the most important records of my life,” he says. “At heart I may be more a blues than a jazz player. The Messiaen piece is an astonishingly lovely melody with chords that sound like they might have come out of jazz harmony. It seemed like a piece Paul Motian might have written.” The influence of Motian is not surprising, as Harrison’s previous Sunnyside release The Music of Paul Motian sought to re-contextualize the great drummer’s oeuvre with the Joel Harrison String Choir, made up entirely of string instruments and devoid of drums.
The stellar cast of players that Harrison has assembled here shows his deep immersion in the New York jazz scene, while demonstrating a sensitive ear for what types of players would work well for the music. Each band member contributes a singular sound and wide-ranging ability. Violinist Christian Howes and cellist Dana Leong, both classically trained and longtime Harrison collaborators are considered by many to be two of the top improvisers in the world on their respective instruments (Leong takes a ripping solo on “Whipping Post”). Donny McCaslin, the towering tenor saxophonist of immense technique and grace is used by everyone from trumpeter Dave Douglas to saxophonist Dave Binney to composers Maria Schneider and George Gruntz. Gary Versace, a multi-instrumentalist equally versatile on piano, organ and Fender Rhodes (among many other keyboard variants), is frequently called upon by everyone from jazzy pop chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux to drummer-composer John Hollenbeck. Stephan Crump, a sensitive and unique accompanist and bandleader also supports the likes of pianist Vijay Iyer, guitarists Jim Campilongo and Liberty Ellman and singer-songwriter Jen Chapin. Clarence Penn is the drummer of choice for multiple Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider and celebrated trumpeter-composer Douglas. All are bandleaders in their own right. What all of these players share in common is an ability to give voice to the composer’s intentions, no matter what the style, and to get to the heart of the compositions. They are all extremely technically adept, yet their chops are secondary to the finesse and soul that they bring to this gripping new project.
The title illustrates Harrison’s philosophy for life. “Search”, he explains “is what I do everyday as an artist and human being. The older I get, the more I realize how much I have to learn, and how little time there is to do so. Keeping open, inquisitive, finding new possibilities is what art and life are all about.”
Release Date: March 27, 2012
..:: SOURCE: Fully Altered Media ::..