Joel Harrison: The Wheel (2008)
Guitarist Joel Harrison has been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) forging a path of adventure in modern music. Not necessarily content with arbitrary categories, he is discovering ways to utilize all the different musical streams of the world. He has used jazz improvisation as a starting point but it's never the be-all-end-all, the kind of thing that draws more attention to technique than to storytelling. His musicianship and that of his cohorts is always of the virtuoso variety but what you come away with is something much more.
For The Wheel, Harrison's motivation was, he notes, "a determination to make music that equally represents improvisation and notation." It's not necessarily a new idea, but in Harrison's capable hands it does indeed feel different. Taking advantage of a new breed of string playersTodd Reynolds, Chris Howes, Caleb Burhans, Wendy Sutterwho are comfortable with improvising, he has created a suite that beautifully merges spontaneity and structure.
The first movement, entitled "American Farewell," seems to say a sad yet spirited goodbye to the past. The strings, buoyed by a rhythm section of bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Dan Weiss, are at the center of this lamentation yet with energy and passion make it also seem a greeting to something new. The strings here are never just used as backup to jazz instrumentsthat's precisely the impasse that Harrison wants to avoid. In stunning fashionlisten to Harrison himself in their midstthey create a spiritual focus for "Blues Circle," which utilizes African string music and a Coltrane-like fervor to tell its story. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi 'sings' a new blues in traditional jazz fashion with Horner and Weiss offering a powerful pulse and the strings never far out of the tale.
This suite often seems like a hymnsometimes melancholy, sometimes celebratoryto America. It's about loss but also about the power of the past and of diversity. Notably, all the players go from the notated to the improvised without clumsy bumps or awkward transitions. That works phenomenally well on the densely textured and wildly furious "Rising." Here it's saxophonist David Binney taking an impassioned alto solo but the band tackles some truly difficult ensemble writing to get to it; check out the glorious pizzicato section after the alto feature.
To underscore the sense of loss moving into something affirming, the suite closes with a memorial to an old friend of Harrison's. In loss, he has learned to celebrate life, no matter how briefly it shines. Harrison wails a eulogy and the piece explodes in a frenzy of invention. His friend is alive in the music and all the players take part in the joyous wake. Never for a minute is the loss forgotten but the music offers promise and hope. What more can we expect?
Track Listing: American Farewell; Blues Circle; Rising; We Have Been the Victims of a Broken Promise; Ceaseless Motion (Watch the Future Roll By); In Memoriam: Dana Brayton.
Personnel: Joel Harrison: composer, guitar; Todd Reynolds, Chris Howes: violins; Caleb Burhans: viola; Wendy Sutter: cello; David Binney: alto saxophone: Ralph Alessi: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lindsey Horner: bass; Dan Weiss: drums.