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Joe Harriott Quintet: Free Form & Abstract Revisited

Chris May BY

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Joe Harriott Quintet: Free Form & Abstract Revisited
A tiny island, Jamaica has punched far above its weight musically. Dub and reggae are the primary manifestations, but the island has also produced a disproportionately large number of notable jazz musicians, many of whom left during the late 1940s and 1950s to relocate to Britain, Jamaica's so-called mother country during the colonial era. Alto saxophonist Joe Harriott moved to London in 1951. Other early arrivals included flautist Harold McNair, tenor saxophonist Wilton 'Bogey' Gaynair, trumpeters Dizzy Reece and Eddie Thornton, and bassist Coleridge Goode. Fast forward to London's post-2015 alternative jazz scene and practically all the leading players are alumni of the catalytic Tomorrow's Warriors outreach project co-founded by the educator and bandleader, bassist Gary Crosby—born in London of Jamaican heritage—and his wife, Janine Irons.

Coleridge Goode was the bassist in the quintet which recorded what are arguably Joe Harriott's two most remarkable albums, the newly reissued Free Form (Jazzland, 1961) and Abstract (Columbia, 1963). Do not be put off by the dry track titles; this is hard-swinging, lyrical music for the head, heart and feet. The group's trumpeter is Shake Keane, who migrated to London from another Caribbean island, St Vincent, while pianist Pat Smythe and alternating drummers Phil Seaman and Bobby Orr were white Britons. All six were among the cream of London jazz musicians of the era.

In August 2021, Free Form and Abstract were reissued together as Free Form & Abstract Revisited, a 2 x CD set in the ezz-thetics label's Revisited series, which is devoted to curating and remastering landmark avant-garde albums of the 1960s. Harriott is in distinguished company, for most albums in the series are by American royalty such as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. Harriott deserves his place among them.

During his lifetime (he passed in 1973, aged just 44 years), Harriott was routinely described as Britain's version of Ornette Coleman. The description is a stereotypical example of journalistic laziness. Yes, both musicians played alto saxophone, emerged around the same time, and were visceral players who pushed against stylistic convention. But there is no mistaking the sound of one for the other. While Coleman was rooted in the blues, Harriott came out of bop and hard bop with side orders of calypso and mento. He was also concerned with stretching form rather than jettisoning it.

Again unlike Coleman, who never strayed far from his comfort zone, Harriott was up for playing in a wide variety of musical contexts. In the early 1960s, for instance, he was a mainstay of bands led by the pianist Michael Garrick which experimented with fusing poetry and jazz. Coleridge Goode often joined him, as did Shake Keane, whose first name was derived from his school years' nickname, "Shakespeare," bestowed for his love of literature and poetry. During the same period, Harriott performed and recorded convincingly in the traditional New Orleans-style band led by trombonist Chris Barber. Later in the decade, he co-led with violinist John Mayer the raga-based band Indo-Jazz Fusions.

Harriot was a cerebral figure who did not suffer fools gladly. In that regard he was a bit like his fellow iconoclast Thelonious Monk. Coincidentally, a photo exists of Monk and Harriott huddled together in Germany in the mid 1960s, their paths having crossed on tour. Monk appears to be laughing at a joke Harriott has just made.

To think of Harriot "just" as Britain's Ornette Coleman is to miss much else about him. To learn more, check the excellent one-hour YouTube clip below, which is a recording of a 2017 BBC Radio 3 documentary hosted by alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch (the first couple of minutes are missing but that is of no concern). Interviewees include several of Harriott's contemporaries including an archived conversation with Coleridge Goode, who passed in 2015, aged one hundred years.

Track Listing

Formation; Coda; Abstract; Impression; Straight Lines; Calypso; Tempo; Subject; Shadows; Oleo; Modal; Tonal; Pictures; Idiom; Compound.

Personnel

Joe Harriott: saxophone; Shake Keane: trumpet; Pat Smythe: piano; Coleridge Goode: bass; Bobby Orr: drums; Phil Seaman: drums; Frank Holder: bongos.

Additional Instrumentation

Joe Harriot: alto saxophone; Shake Keane: trumpet, flugelhorn; Pat Smythe: piano; Coleridge Goode: double bass; Phil Seaman: drums (1-8, 13-16); Bobby Orr: drums (9-12); Frank Holder: bongos (9, 10).

Album information

Title: Free Form & Abstract Revisited | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Ezz-thetics

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