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

By Published: July 10, 2006
AAJ: Let's take that final step to the modern era. Free Country was obviously a big record, and my guess is that it introduced people to Joel Harrison who hadn't know much about you before. You mentioned earlier that the Harrison on Harrison album was a blessing and a curse. Was Free Country a similar experience?

JH: Yes, very much so. It was really kind of a fluke, and it brings to mind that John Lennon line about life being what happens to you when you're making other plans. I'd been playing some of those country tunes and just enjoying that, and it suggested itself as a project at a time when I didn't have a strong feeling about what else I wanted to do. I put out Range of Motion and Transience, which were both my compositions for elaborate, larger bands, and I thought I was in a transition in my life.

I'd just moved to New York, and I wanted to do something simple. But in a way I almost looked at it like a throwaway project, something nobody would notice, but it would be fun. I'd print up a few copies and move on. And it just seemed to have a life that was bigger than that, partly, though not all, because [vocalist] Norah Jones was on there. And it ended up being my most successful record by an enormous factor. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Partly that no one had done anything like it before, even though it's apparently similar to certain artists' approach to country and jazz, but not really. Also the strength of those songs, and of course the personnel. And a good record company putting it out.

AAJ: And it's led to other projects?

JH: Yeah, there was Free Country 2 [So Long 2nd Street (High Note, 2004)]. I felt like the first one was such an accident that I wanted to approach the second one as if I was actually planning it. I played a lot in Europe doing that music. And I sort of see the Harrison on Harrison project as the final piece in that body of work, which is essentially arranging, even though there's some of my writing on there. I'm still waiting for somebody to call me up and hire me as an arranger. I thought that would happen, but it hasn't. So, anybody out there? Any singers need a new way of approaching music?

AAJ: You and [saxophonist] David Binney seemed to be a perfect match at last night's show. He would spend so much time exploring one pitch with overtones, and I was really enjoying how much you guys seemed to dig being up there together.

JH: I think we share a musical aesthetic, which again is very eclectic. I think one of the things we've all learned to do over the years is approach improvising from a lot of different ways. He's got a tremendous vocabulary, and it's not just the technical stuff, although he's an amazing technician.

But like you said, he can also play incredibly simply, which for a country music project can be really effective, because sometimes you don't want that tired jazz phrasing. You want somebody to play really simple melodies. He also loves electronic music and rock and roll and funk, and he can play in any style of jazz you throw at him. It's great as a bandleader to have somebody who is that able to accomplish what you need, no matter what you put in front of him.

AAJ: And how about [bassist] Dave Ambrosio and [drummer] Dan Weiss?

JH: Dan is getting better known now. He's a great drummer and very good tabla player with a really unique approach to the drums. Again, a phenomenal technician, but also conceptually, he's always thinking out of the box. And the same is true for Dave Ambrosio.

AAJ: What's next for you?

JH: I've got two commissions from Chamber Music America, which is really exciting. One is a Doris Duke composition grant, where I'm writing a piece for the group Free Country plus cello and violin, and also involving text, where I'm interviewing people and asking them to respond to questions like "Who are you?" and "What does it mean to be an American?" and "Where is our country headed?" and then making the text part of some of the movements of the piece. That's all original music, so the influence of country or Appalachian music will be more felt than heard.

Then I'm doing a French-American jazz collaboration that's a first-year project for Chamber Music America, where I'm working with French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le, percussionist Jamie Haddad, [French] bassist Gildas Bocle, and Dave Binney, and we're going to make a record that has original music as well as interpretations inspired by French and American icons like [French composer Olivier] Messiaen and [American composer Charles] Ives and French troubadour song and Cajun music.

Joel HarrisonAAJ: How did that project come about? Was the French influence your idea?

JH: No. There was a grant that I applied for that Chamber Music America started with the French government to have French-American collaborations. I was a fan of Nguyen Le for a while, and thought it would be interesting to have two guitars. Again, here's a guy [Le] who deals with all these different kinds of music, so I created an idea for a project.

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