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Joel Harrison: Harbor (2007)

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Joel Harrison: Harbor How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Joel Harrison is a sound explorer and that comes through in his rich, multi-colored compositions, his deftly textured arrangements and his expressive playing. He has forged a career in which each new development builds on what came before it but offers new and different surprises. Harbor is the result of a joint commission by the French Cultural Alliance and Chamber Music America and is so rich in its seamless combination of elements that it feels like a new music no matter how familiar those elements might be. Every member of the ensemble here plays a vital role in the overall picture and thus "harbor —that place of shelter and where boats of many nations come—is applicable to the grand mix of player and music.

Guitars play a prominent part in the mix here and Harrison gives the other voice to the great Nguyên Lê. On the opening track "You Bring the Rain, both guitarists and the leader's smart use of electronic effects oversee a densely textured tapestry of colors from around the universe. Saxophonist David Binney continues to impress—his playing, both in group and as a soloist, builds the best dramatic stories. It's like the work of an architect who starts with the simplest elements and combines to create a powerful edifice.

Harrison finds a new way to respond emotionally to the story that was/is New Orleans and that's no small feat. The opening of "Blue Ghosts of Bourbon Street reflects 12th century France and, through the use of electronics and powerful guitar work, speaks to the full richness of the city's heritage.

Special note must be made of Jamey Haddad's percussion work. It dazzles in its broad panoply of colors and does much more than simply complement the other players. And in person, it's a true gas to see and hear the collection of exotic instruments. On every tune the percussion helps the leader get a fuller story to tell, with greater intimate detail.

Startling in its impact is "American Babylon. Haddad's frame drums set up a trance-like drone and the guitarists and saxophonist are free to wail with and over it. Both guitarists suggest the hypnotic quality of the Middle East and at one point the mood changes to a kind of funk groove. In its simple yet studied way, it finds the universality of people and their musics.

On a rainy April, 2007 evening, Harrison brought Harbor—the name for the music and the group—to New York's Jazz Standard for a celebration of the new recording and, more importantly, the power of a unified group. The band was the same except that the brilliant Brad Shepik replaced Lê and Stefan Crump and Jordan Perlson—each on only two tracks on the album—played throughout. Shepik added punch and power to the guitar lines and Haddad's percussion passion took visual life. Every tune in the set—as on the disc—was about telling a story packed with detail and told by masters.

The New Orleans tune and the closing "Hudson Shining in particular called forth all the energy in the room and even from the streets (on the last piece) but even then these players had a sense of space and of dynamics. The music had the drive of a jam band, the passion of the best jazz and, yes, the intimacy of the finest chamber music.

Track Listing: You Bring the Rain; Blue Ghosts of Bourbon Street; End Time; The Refugee; Hudson Shining; Harbor; American Babylon; Les Freres en ut majeur (Brothers in C Major).

Personnel: Joel Harrison: guitar; David Binney: alto saxophone; Nguyn L: guitar (1-3, 6-8); Gildas Bocle: bass (1-3, 6-8); Jamey Haddad: percussion (1-3, 6-8); Henry Hey: piano (4, 5); Stephan Crump: bass (4, 5); Jordan Perlson: drums (4), percussion (5); Satoshi Takeishi: drums (5), percussion (4); Marty Wehner: trombone (2).

Record Label: HighNote Records

Style: Modern Jazz


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