Joel Harrison: If You Have To Ask "Is It Jazz?"... It Is
AAJ: You came to New York in 1999. Why did you decide to make that move?
JH: Well, in the Bay area there were some pretty powerful years there, when there were a lot of great people out there and there was really the feeling of a scene and something happening. Maybe 1994-98. And I'm really proud of the records I made out there, which most people have never heard ofRange of Motion (Koch, 1997), Transience (Spirit Nectar, 2001), and 3+3=7 (Nine Winds, 1996). I like to mention those, because I think people think that all I've ever done is Free Country and Harrison on Harrison. I've been around for a long time and done a lot of composing, and I wish people knew more about those records. But it just became clear that there was a glass ceiling in the Bay area for what I wanted to do, and it took a lot of nerve to pull up stakes and come to New York, but I'm really glad I did. It's been very, very fruitful for me.
We were talking about bringing together different styles of music. I had this experience when I was maybe 25 of sitting in on a poetry class by Robert Duncan. It seemed to me at the time, listening to him talk, that he had absorbed so many different influences from poetry into his own writing, and I thought, "How does he do that?" Because I felt like all the different things that I liked, I couldn't figure out how to bring them together. Everything ended up sounding secondhand, or just plain trite. And I went up to him afterwards and I walked with him for a little while and I said, "I'm having this problem. I love all these different things, and I have no idea how to make them fit together."
He said, "Well, first of all, I wouldn't even think that what you're trying to do would be possible until you get older." He said before he was 30, he had the same problem, and he said, "I didn't even begin to be able to convincingly develop a voice that involved the different things that I loved until after I was 30." He said a lot of other stuff, but that really stuck with me. I took me so long to put out an album that I liked. My first record didn't come out till I was in my late 30's, and it's because it took me so long to figure out all these different influences.
All these things I was studying needed time to gel inside me, and I needed to seriously understand them and not just be a dilettante for it all to become music as opposed to concepts. And I think that's one of the things that is the difference between eclectic music that just sounds superficial, and eclectic music that works on some deep level because people have devoted themselves to whatever sources their music is coming from. It really takes a while. Anybody who's following what you're doing has to have a lot of patience, because it can really take a while or be hit-and-miss.
AAJ: Will you talk about how [reed player and Oregon member] Paul McCandless came to be in your orbit? [McCandless appeared on Range of Motion]
JH: He lived in the Bay area, so he was an obvious choice for this texturally rich eight-piece band that I was writing for. He's just phenomenal. He's almost the only person who does what he does, which is to double on single-reed and double-reed instruments, and he was the first person I recorded with who was at that level. He was so fantastic, so easy to work with, and so good at what he did. Oregon was a big influence on me when I was about 18talk about people who were creating a new synthesis of sound. So it was very exciting for me to have him be a part of that.
AAJ: What about him as a player or person was at a higher level?
JH: He came in to record, and he was obviously completely in control of what he was doing. Guys like that, there's a certain gravitas that they bring with them, like, "I've done this so many times, so no worries. It's going to sound good, and it's not going to take me a long time to make it sound good."
AAJ: I really like 3+3=7. I like the sound, and the interplay between the three guitarists and two drummers, and the fact that that many fingers are able to come off sounding as good as they do, it seems like a large victory. How did you come up with the concept for that record??
JH: At the time, I really felt stuck in ways of making music that seemed kind of old to me. Conventional song structures, head-solo-head forms. I reconnected with my friend [guitarist] Nels Cline, who I'd known at Pamona College and stayed in touch with. When I moved to the Bay area, I started to see him more. He's always been someone who inspired me. I knew [drummer] Alex Cline, too, and I thought I'd like to do something that I've never done before, and just throw open the gates to what's possible.
[Nels] had the Alligator Lounge music series in L.A., which was a way you could improvise and do new things without much concern about any of the typical things that you have to worry about when you're playing a gig. So we did a quartet concert with two percussionists and two guitarists, and it suggested to me that if I added one more of each it would take it into a place that I'd never been before. I believe that electric guitars can do many different kinds of things. You can create so many different kinds of textures and sounds, and if you combine that with my love of world music and world percussion ... [3+3=7] is a record that really touches on true avant-garde improvising with rock and roll, world music, and psychedelic stuff. In a way, I've been doing the same thing over and over again, but in really different ways. That's the only record I've ever done where there was extended free improvisation. It was really a lot of fun.