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

By Published: July 10, 2006
AAJ: That must a been an ego-challenging experience.

JH: It was, but I think it was fantastic training. This was coming right from the source. He wasn't messing around. It was like, "This is deadly serious. You think free improvising is just fucking around? No."

AAJ: How did that mesh with what you were studying at Bard? I imagine that was a pretty different environment.

JH: Yeah, but I always wanted to learn about everything. So while I was always interested in pop and rock music, I was also interested in straight-ahead jazz and serious composition. I was studying composition. I was taking a lot of dumb and useless courses at Bard, to be honest, because it was kind of a flaky place at that time. But the best thing I was doing was studying composition with Joan Tower, who's now become very well known. She was a great teacher.

AAJ: While I was listening to you last night [June 11, 2006 at the Rochester International Jazz Festival], I heard a woman lean over to the guy next to her and say, "Is this jazz?" And I remembered this thing that you wrote earlier this year: "There are still people who act as if the intersection of, say, rock and jazz, or Chinese folk song and jazz, is odd or unusual and I find that amazing." And I know that even back in '79, you and [percussionist] Sonam were doing the Native Lands (Minds on Hold, 1979) record, and you were exploring things back then.

JH: You're probably one of the seven people on earth who's heard that record.

AAJ: It has its charm.

JH: Primitive charm.

AAJ: Can you talk a little more about that embrace of different styles and genres and their applicability to jazz?

JH: To me, that's what jazz always represented—a strong tradition but also a kind of music that would welcome any influence into it, as long as you could figure out how to do it in a way that was musical. In general, my outlook toward music is very ecumenical. I love all kinds of music, and I think that comes out in whatever I do. I'm a believer that jazz is not a pure form of music and never was. It's all about what you decide jazz is. There's not much of a common denominator.

So I just take what I really love and learn enough about it so that it's absorbed into my system, and then I do what I do. And whatever comes out, maybe it leans toward something that's more unstructured and free, like from the old days with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or maybe it comes from just a simple place with no composition, or maybe it's an elaborate composition with no improvisation, or maybe it's swinging. Although I'd say that's pretty rare.

But I think if I sat there and pointed out to you why that's there and why this is there you'd say, "OK, I get it," because these are really definite parts of my past that relate to everything I'm doing. Hopefully you don't notice that. You just have an experience. But if we sat down and picked it apart, you'd see that little African guitar thing, I got that from listening to African music. And that solo that guy took, the reason I love that solo is because it comes from this lineage that I'm a big fan of. That's so funny. I'm so glad you overheard that [question asking "Is this jazz?"]. That's classic.

AAJ: Anyway, when the woman asked "Is this jazz, her companion's response was "yes," which is nice.

JH: What piece was it?

AAJ: It was during [George Harrison's] "Beware of Darkness." Which, to me, wasn't even the best time to ask that question.

JH: Yeah, that's a much more normal tune. That's just a melody and some really beautiful chord changes. That's a song that people really love, because the harmony easily applies itself to a more straight-ahead jazz reading.

AAJ: I'm not sure she meant it like, "I know what jazz is and I'm having a hard time fitting this into my cosmology." I think she was asking from a place of interest.

JH: But what's so weird about the world is that as far back as the early 70's, there was Miles Davis doing Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970). That's now 40 years ago. I mean since when is rock and jazz coming together that different? I just think most people hear many different kinds of music. Even when you play a major festival like this, there's a sense that you do something like that and people are a little bit shocked or surprised and maybe ambivalent about it.

We [Harrison's band] live in our little world. We think what we're doing is normal. One of the things that really surprised me last night was that even my friend [guitarist] Steve [Greene] and Sonam both used the word avant-garde to describe what we were doing. These are both knowledgeable musicians. I never consider myself avant-garde although I really can see how elements of that are part of who I am. But most people would never pair me with Matthew Shipp or William Parker or Evan Parker. They would think I was way, way more normal than that. But in a way I started to see that the way we pick apart these tunes and what we do with them can be so unpredictable and so unusual that people might think that. Some of Dave Binney's solos were screaming atonal solos, and the textures we do are really freaky, weird, psychedelic textures, so I began to see that maybe you could think of it that way.

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