Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?
The downside of Robertson's agnostic approach, of leaving readers to make their own judgments from the evidence he presents is just that. Harriott has become a mythic figure forced to carry in his life more than the facts of it can sustain. Some readers, at least, will simply read the facts into the myth. In fairness, Robertson lacks the critical machinery that would allow him to negotiate the ways in which the biographical might intersect with the social and cultural aspects of Harriott's life and career. In this, he is hardly alone in writing on jazz or other art forms. If so, therefore, he is right to leave well alone.
The simultaneous release of The Joe Harriott Story on Proper Records provides a different route into the subject, though it also presents a whole new range of problems for the fan and student. Since the saxophonist's death from cancer of the spine aged 44 in 1973, his music has been patchily available, plagued in part by issues of copyright. Much of the music, that produced by the legendary Denis Preston for his Lansdowne series, is owned by Universal, which company has been slow in either issuing the music itself or allowing others to do so. When writer Richard Cook was at Polygram, later bought out by Universal, he began a program of releasing key British jazz albums from the sixties owned by the company. Amongst those reissues were Harriott's Free Form, Abstract and the second and third Indo-Jazz Fusions LPs from 1966 and '67, Indo-Jazz Fusions I & II (Redial, 1998)
This left Southern Horizons (Jazzland/Columbia, 1960), Movement, High Spirits (Columbia, 1964), the first Indo-jazz record Indo-Jazz Suite (Columbia, 1965), Personal Portrait (Columbia, 1967) and the lovely Hum Dono (Columbia, 1963), with Goan guitarist Amancio D'Silva still out of the catalogue. Available elsewhere, however, was the original 1967 Melodisc recording, Swings High (Cadillac, 2004), which now features on the Proper box set.
Part of the difficulty in assessing Harriott's work lies in its unavailability and, in particular, the fact that without access to the increasingly rare and collectable vinyl copies it was often only glimpsed from afar. With the exception of the saxophonist Tubby Hayes, some of whose records were released on Mole Jazz in the eighties, Harriott was not unique in that respect amongst that generation of British musicians, black or white.
The Joe Harriott Story goes some small way to rectifying this. The first two of its four CDs focus on early material, which has been available before on the Proper label. Sadly, there is much from that era that is still missing in action, including six tracks recorded with Tony Kinsey's group in 1957, four from that same year with Allan Ganley, four from 1954 with Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists, an EP's worth of material from Harriott's 1955 quartet and several other cuts with different ensembles. This does not detract from the value of the release but it is certainly not a comprehensive survey. The real importance of The Joe Harriott Story really lies in its restoration to the catalogue of Free Form and, for the first time on CD, Southern Horizons. The remaining material is from the Melodisc 1967 session.
With the exception of Swings High, these recordings are now in the public domain and hopefully a Volume II will follow in a few years time, adding Abstract, Movement and, in due course, the later albums as well. The difficulty remains, however, that it is hard for those who do not have access to the later material to understand both the importance of Harriott's contribution to British jazz but also, in relation to the Indo-jazz albums and Hum Dono, that his involvement here was that of an admittedly important soloist and group member. He was neither the architect nor the initiator of these projects and first credit for their achievements must go to composer/violinist John Mayer for the Indo-Jazz Fusions and to Amancio D'Silva for Hum Dono.
Further to that, not everything that Harriott touched turned to goldthe tunes on High Spirits, taken from the musical of that name, are not really worthy of his or his group's talents, whilst Personal Portrait is patchily engaging to say the least. Once again, in a way, this release fosters first the myth and allows only a partial appraisal of Harriott's work. That said, Southern Horizons, taken from two 1959/1960 EP sessions, is a fine, flowing set, if also one that fails to prepare us for the beautiful, fractured music that follows on Free Form. This, and the music that followed on his next two records, marked the distinctive and highly personalized art that grew from Harriott's own creative world-view and, perhaps, at some level most clearly reflected his biography.