Joel Harrison: If You Have To Ask "Is It Jazz?"... It Is

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Jazz is the most democratic of all kinds of music, and I could never do music that didn't have improvisation in it for too long.
Joel HarrisonJoel Harrison is a busy guy. From his critically acclaimed Free Country (ACT, 2003)—and its resultant commissions and recordings—to his new album of daring arrangements of the music of George Harrison, Harrison On Harrison (High Note, 2005), the 48-year-old guitarist/composer/arranger is constantly looking for news ways to express himself.

Harrison sat down after a recent gig at the 2006 Rochester International Jazz Festival to talk about his life, his music, and why it took him so long to make a record that he liked.

All About Jazz: Where did you grow up?

Joel Harrison: Washington, DC.

AAJ: Was there a lot of music in your house? Were your folks big fans or did they have a big record collection?

JH: No, they both liked music, but they weren't musicians, so I would say no.

AAJ: When did you first pick up the guitar?

JH: I guess I started playing when I was nine years old. And I don't really know why I wanted to play guitar. I just did.

AAJ: And where did you start studying? The corner music store?

JH: Exactly. My dad took me down to the place near his office where there were a bunch of old weird looking guys with big ears. They were really scary and wore horrible looking suits [laughs]. They were really patient with me, but it's hard to teach a nine- or ten-year-old kid, and I wasn't really motivated so it didn't last that long. Then a teacher started coming to our house, and at around age 14 I decided that I was really serious about it, and it started to take then.

AAJ: What kind of guitar were you playing?

JH: I started with classical guitar, and I was obviously playing all the folk songs of the day. Then I switched to electric—I didn't switch, I added the electric. At first it was all nylon string, then some things happened. I saw Woodstock: The Movie. And the electric guitar is really an inevitability of this day and age. All the students I teach want to play electric guitar. Even when their parents make them start on acoustic guitar, they always switch.

AAJ: When you were 14 or 15, did you see something that made you say, "Now I'm going to be serious about it"?

JH: It was a combination of things. I think the music that was really in the air at the time involved people using the electric guitar in ways no one had ever seen before. At that time, people were creating something truly new, and I think people forget that about rock music. At one time, it truly was avant-garde, and it got created in a time of incredible turmoil and passion. People like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend—I was a kid when I saw them, and the effect they were having on the culture was just devastating. Also Simon and Garfunkel, of course much more acoustic. The music of that time was incredibly powerful, and really stood out in the society at large, and it was impossible to ignore that.

AAJ: What changed when you decided to be more serious?

JH: It was a feeling of destiny. "This is what I'm going to do." And I started to model my identity around that and to practice harder.

AAJ: Did you find a new teacher then?

JH: No. I didn't really have very good teachers. I wish I had. Perhaps it was limited where I lived—I don't know. I had the same teacher all through high school. I had a lot more teachers after that, so I made up for it.

AAJ: Were you playing in a band in high school?

JH: Oh yeah, of course. I was doing all that stuff.

AAJ: The obligatory garage rock band?

JH: Well, we were playing songs by Yes and the groups of the day. Hendrix, Eric Clapton.

AAJ: When you went to Bard College, you were part of Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio scene at some point, right?

JH: That was such an incredible place. In a way, that could never happen again, because all the people he had teaching there were part of something—like rock music was to the 60's—the creative jazz movement in the 70's, which was part of the loft movement in New York. There were just a lot of fascinating, weird individual players on the forefront of this new jazz that [Berger] would have up to teach there.

I didn't spend much time there, but I saw some incredible stuff. I went to an Art Ensemble of Chicago 10-day workshop that was really life changing. Their mixture of types of different music, and what influenced them, and their stance, the way they looked at the world, how strong their personalities were—it was just so affecting. And they were really amazing teachers, too. I learned an awful about what it means to improvise in that short period of time.

AAJ: Did you learn by doing?

JH: Yeah. They had workshops and really interesting ways of approaching teaching. Roscoe Mitchell had a class that he did where he would have everybody just sit in a circle, and there were no rules except one: You had to be in tune with what was going on. He would be the judge of that. And the moment somebody played something that didn't seem to fit what had been created for it compositionally, he'd snap his fingers and we'd have to stop and start again. I don't think we ever got beyond a minute of music.

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