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Artist Profiles

Joe Harriott: A Restless Soul

By Published: January 18, 2004
Jazz music is not unused to firebrands who push the music on in the face of adversity or mere ignorance. In fact they have been invaluable in ensuring that the music stays fresh and new. Emphasis on innovations in the music has been on Afro-Americans, and it is true that they have played the largest part. However, it is easy to overlook the contribution of others in advancing the music, players with a unique voice of their own and with the courage and tenacity to see their goals through. One such character often consigned to being a footnote in jazz history under ‘forgotten genius’ is the British based Jamaican, Joe Harriott. In 2003, the London Jazz Festival chose to pay tribute to the altoist with an evening dedicated to his music and reminiscences from old and young British musicians alike.

Joe Harriott came to the UK in 1952 with the Eddie Da Costa band already with a well-developed style of his own. Here he quickly aligned himself with a generation of British jazzers heavily under the influence of the sound of Charlie Parker and Be-Bop. His forthright, aggressive and unsentimental sound was an immediate hit and his ability to not only play all styles of jazz but be a master of them too was impressive. His contemporaries in the burgeoning modern jazz scene in London included the pianist Michael Garrick and the great tenor and vibraphonist, Tubby Hayes His popularity led him to work in Ronnie Scott’s short-lived big band in 1956 where he typically won the admiration of his fellow band members for his playing, but had some personality clashes when others saw him as arrogant. He was a person of tremendous self-confidence, and his manner could come across as rather dogmatic and aloof.

Harriott contracted tuberculosis in 1958 and spent six months recuperating in hospital. It was here that he began to develop his a new approach to music that he called ‘free form’. Music free from harmonic and rhythmic patterns or as he referred to it the ability to ‘paint sound’. “All the others, they play inside the room, in here. What I play is out de window, out de window.” This discovery was made in parallel with Ornette Coleman’s concepts but regardless of any knowledge of them. He was then, a pioneer in developing these ideas and the grandfather of the subsequent European free-jazz movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Harriott had assembled a quintet of like-minded jazzmen who quickly picked up on his ideas and adapted well to playing them. In addition to Joe were Shake Keane on trumpet, Coleridge Goode on Bass, Pat Smythe on piano and Bobby Orr on drums, later to be replaced by the great Phil Seamen. On a trip to play in Frankfurt they began to experiment with the new sounds.

This approach to free music was less jagged and abrasive than Coleman’s and less based in the blues. Often the pieces would begin with a simple theme to create a mood for each player to lend in their own ideas and build up a picture in sound. These abstractions had no regular rhythm and changed tempo in the blink of an eye. In line with the best of free jazz experiments, the band’s democratic surrealism produced a music that floats and ducks and darts in exciting and unpredictable ways that makes repeated listening a compulsion. His ideas took shape from European classical music, be-bop, Calypso and the Avant-Garde. The rhythm section laid in and out of the music at random creating a sparse arena for Shake Keane’s trumpet to snake in and around, while Harriott created zig zagging lines sometimes aggressive and angular sometimes tender and wistful, but always with rugged emotion.

The two resulting records Free Form (1960) and Abstract (1962) have the kind of timeless quality that makes them stand up as a worthwhile addition to any serious jazz collection. The former album received the highest rating of five stars in the influential ‘Downbeat’ jazz magazine and the quintet became a popular attraction around the jazz festivals of Europe.

In the mid 1960’s Harriott began exploring the fusion of Indian music and jazz with the violinist John Mayer, to create some of the first experiments in ‘world-music’. Here he pitted six jazzmen opposite four Indian musicians to weave a rich new synthesis of Indian music with modal and free jazz. The sextet broadened with the sounds of violin, sitar, tambura and tabla created a hypnotic backdrop for Joe’s explorations on alto. Again Harriott met with critical acclaim, three albums, Indo-Jazz Fusions 1 and 2 and Indo-Jazz Suite, were all recorded in 1966 and are still prized by today’s collectors. He also continued to be a popular attraction at European jazz festivals, appearing with the ten-piece band.

Despite critical acclaim Joe Harriott’s music went largely ignored in his life and he was never able to live comfortably. Neither could he afford to keep regular working bands together. It is a sad but familiar fixture in the history of jazz. The story of unrecognised genius, brave innovators ahead of their time who fell by the wayside, the lonely outsider left only with empty pockets and a restless energy to burn. This is a romantic distortion. Joe Harriott spent his remaining years freelancing around the UK with pick up bands, sleeping on locals’ couches and floors. His closing years were a sad reflection of those of Charlie Parker; dying a lonely and tragic death of cancer in 1973 he was 44.

Joe Harriott’s music is receiving new attention by younger jazz musicians. In 1998, reedman Ken Vandermark paid tribute to the altoist, leading a quartet at the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, in Chicago; producing new arrangements of his work. And at the 2003 London Jazz festival, an exciting young British quintet played some of his tunes and new ones written in a similar vein to great effect, amply illustrating Joe’s continuing relevance to today’s music. Joe Harriott lives on and his music still sounds alive, vital and compelling.

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Joe Harriott: Free Form and Abstract



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