Joel Harrison: If You Have To Ask "Is It Jazz?"... It Is
JH: That totally makes sense, and this project is a mixed blessing in that sense. First of all, I think it would be easy for a real serious musician to look at the fact that I was doing anything by the Beatles and say, "What a sellout." Because typically you would expect a really lame record. So on that end you have some problems, and then on the other end you have people who genuinely want to hear a really normal rendition of their tunes coming in and going, "What the hell is this?" To me, if people would just listen to the music and realize that jazz is all about taking something that in general is very simple and a powerful seed for improvisation and then really approaching it creatively. That's all this is. You can almost use anything.
AAJ: You've said that [the Beatles'] Rubber Soul (Capital, 1965) was the first record you ever bought with your own money. Were you surprised by what you found when you delved so deeply into George Harrison's music later in life?
JH: I don't think I was exactly surprised. I was pleased that I felt so emotionally connected to the music, and it made me want to play it, and that's always a good feeling. And I was pleased that the arrangements that I came up with for that first concert [when Harrison was commissioned to arrange works by George Harrison for a tribute concert] tended to bring out good things in people and create interesting possibilities.
AAJ: I want to ask more about what you're doing now, but I also want to make sure that there's not a 30-year gap in the story...
JH: Between when I was 12 and 48?
AAJ: Exactly. So let's fill in that gap. What did you do after you left Bard College?
JH: I moved to Boston and lived there for five years, and did a variety of things in Boston and played different kinds of music.
AAJ: Why Boston?
JH: I think it was mainly because I had a bunch of friends there, and I thought it would be good to play music with them. I'm not sure it was the best choice. I kind of wish I'd just gone straight to New York, but I didn't.
AAJ: What did you do after Boston?
JH: I moved to the Bay area for 12 yearsI lived in Berkeley. It was kind of an interesting time out there. At that point I was really into this world music thing that you hear some of on Native Lands. I studied music at the Ali Akhbar Khan school. I was learning African music. I would go out and buy music from all over world and just try to learn about it, and that was more meaningful to me than jazz at that point, so I fell out of jazz for a while.
But a few years later, after being out in the Bay area, I was writing a lot of songs, and I more aspired to be a Paul-Simon-type character, somebody making music that had a variety of influences. But at a certain point I realized I couldn't grow as a musician in this type of music that I had chosen to pursue. I needed a substructure that was so strong and so based in tradition that whatever else I did I could fall back on that, and that's when I really seriously started studying jazz. I knew a lot about jazz, and I'd worked with it before, but I realized that in order to get to where I really needed to go, I needed to anchor everything in that tradition.
AAJ: Because of your personal connection to it? Couldn't you have picked, say, Ali Akhbar Khan's tradition and based your music on that?
JH: No, I don't think I could have. That's why I love jazz so much. If you learn enough about jazz, then it will welcome other parts of who you are into it, whereas that's not true of Indian classical music. And at the time, I didn't believe that was true of Western classical music, although I think that's changed. I think that's somewhat true. But 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.
AAJ: When you were in the Bay area, is that when you got involved with film scoring?
AAJ: One thing about film music I've always dug is that is seems to force you to find the essence of a particular sound. Your track "Southern Comfort" [from Harrison's CD Film Music] as soon as you hear it, you know what it's about. Is that a useful tool for you?
JH: I think so, because you have to do a lot in a very short period of time, and you have to create a very strong point of view with film music, and I think it helps your writing.
AAJ: What was your entrée into film music?
JH: I had a friend who was making documentaries for A&E and CourtTV, and he invited me to do the music.
AAJ: What did you think about the invitation?
JH: I was really glad to do it. Not always, but it was good money and a good challenge.
AAJ: Did you write for other ensembles?
JH: No, this was largely synthesizer-based music with a little home recording thrown in.