Joel Harrison 5 at Gigspace Performance Studio

John Kelman By

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Joel Harrison 5
Gigspace Performance Studio
Ottawa, Canada
March 1, 2014

Tucked at the end of a small strip mall in an unlikely location, Gigspace Performance Studio has, since opening in the fall of 2011, garnered a reputation as an intimate performance space where magic often happens. A not-for-profit 46-seat venue, "created by musicians for musicians," it sports surprisingly great sound, despite a stage where even a quintet like the Joel Harrison 5 had to shoehorn itself in. And while a sell-out of a space this small might seem like a small victory, for the 56 year-old guitarist/composer and 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award-winner, it was a chance to play in between gigs in Toronto and Kingston, rather than take the night off. For the full house at Gigspace, it was a great decision because, over the course of two sets, magic did, indeed, happen, and if Harrison is a lesser-known name than he should be, it's small victories like these that incrementally grow his profile.

Of course, it didn't hurt that he brought with him a crack band of fellow New Yorkers. Saxophonist Chris Cheek is another name deserving greater attention, though in projects like bassist Steve Swallow's recent Into the Woodwork (XTRAWATT/ECM, 2013) and his ongoing relationship with Argentinean expat composer/pianist Guillermo Klein, if nothing else he's certainly gained a significant reputation as a musician's musician. Pianist Jacob Sacks—operating with just nine fingers on this cold winter evening thanks to a torn ligament in his right-hand pinkie finger, something nobody would notice unless they happened to see the splint keeping his finger raised above the keys—is another player better known to musicians than to a larger jazz audience, but his work with Dan Weiss on Timshel (Sunnyside, 2010) and David Binney—both on Bastion of Sanity (Criss Cross, 2005) and in a 2010 performance in Montreal—has given the pianist more than his share of street cred.

Bassist Drew Gress, back in Ottawa just a couple weeks after a higher profile gig with John Abercrombie as part of the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival Winter Festival, may be the best-known—or, at least, most often seen—of Harrison's group, beyond Abercrombie, working with noted groups including John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, appearing on Ralph Alessi's 2013 stunner, Baida (ECM), not to mention his own small but superlative discography, including The Sky Inside (Pirouet, 2013). The youngest of the bunch, drummer Jordan Perlson first appeared with Harrison on the guitarist's more rock-edged Harbor (HighNote, 2007), but has since garnered some attention with singers Becca Stevens and Anna Rose.

The cumulative effect of this group—pulled together for a short tour that began in Erie, PA and ending the afternoon after the Ottawa date in Kingston, Canada—was a performance that nobody at Gigspace will soon forget—and who will, no doubt, spread the word about what others missed. Harrison dipped back to one of two records that were, in many ways, his breakthrough albums, So Long 2nd Street (ACT, 2004), for a lovely and relatively reverent reading of Jimmy Webb's classic "Wichita Lineman" that was just one demonstration of a musical purview that reaches far and wide. Harrison's albums are often so much about composition and collective interaction that it's easy to forget what a tastefully considered guitarist he is, but on this first set closer, he demonstrated an ability to get deep into the core of a song and mine it for all it's worth: no guitar gymnastics on display, just melody rich, slightly countrified elegance. Sacks, too, took a lovely solo, though he took more harmonic liberties with this relatively simple pop tune, expanding and expounding upon it with grace and finesse.

It wasn't all gentility and refinement, however; dipping back to 2008's Urban Myths (HighNote) for "Mood Rodeo," Harrison demonstrated the kind of complex compositional constructs that give any musician he recruits plenty with which to work—in this case, temporal shifts from a pumping ostinato to a more up-tempo pulse, all handled with ease by Perlson, who also played on the recording. There were two bassists on the date—acoustic bassist Stephan Crump and electric bassist Fima Ephron—but here, Gress demonstrated his effortless malleability; there seems to be nothing he can't play, as he bolstered a set-defining solo from Harrison, who used a small slide that, by only fitting on the first joint of his ring finger, allowed him greater flexibility with his other fingers at the same time. Cheek, too, took a solo of great depth and invention, motif-driven and clearly focused on building a narrative rather than simply demonstrating chops (which he nevertheless has aplenty).

Another highlight from Urban Myths closed the evening. That Harrison was able to reduce this larger ensemble piece down to a quintet only served to demonstrate the flexibility of his writing. Driven by Perlson—who, given the size of the room, managed to play with all the power the writing required, without ever dominating the group—the original recording is redolent of a less bombastic Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark II with the use of violinist Christian Howes as one of the frontline players, but brought into the 21st century through Perlson's far more contemporary grooves. In Ottawa, it was just a quintet, meaning that, instead of Howes, Harrison took the first solo, with a suitably overdriven tone, before Cheek delivered one of his best of the set, leading to a solo from Perlson that was, again, remarkable in its energy and drive, while still at a completely tolerable level for such a small room.

Harrison also drew on compositions from past albums like 2012's Holy Abyss—his first on Cuneiform Records but not his last, as he has a real rarity coming up later in the year from the well-regarded and broad-reaching label. For the first time Harrison will release an album focusing heavily on his own guitar. It's a busy year for Harrison, in fact; in addition to Mother Stump (Cuneiform, 2014), which will feature drummer Jeremy Clemmons, bassist Michael Bates and, on some tracks, keyboardist Glenn Patscha for a varied set of originals and covers ranging from Paul Motian and Leonard Cohen to Al Kooper and Buddy Miller—and from which Harrison played his own "Refuge" as the evening's penultimate tune—there's a collaboration with Indian sarode player Anupam Shobhakar, Leave the Door Open (Whirlwind Records, 2014), coming in just a few short weeks. Harrison also has yet another album in the can, looking for a label—a unique instrumental combination with trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassoonist Paul Hanson, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Brian Blade.

Harrison gave his Ottawa crowd a taste of what was to come (in addition to selling the CD, along with others, at the show) by playing Leave the Door Open's opener, "The Translator"—a gentle piece where Harrison had to substitute electric guitar for the album's acoustic instrument, but nothing was lost. East-meets-West projects are nothing new, but based on what was played, it's clear that Harrison has subsumed Indian linearity into his harmonically sophisticated and rhythmically driven sound world, with Sacks contributing a particularly strong solo that ran the gamut from gentle lyricism to more outré concerns.

Gress was an anchor throughout, but when he soloed, just as he did two weeks earlier with Abercrombie, he demonstrated a similar ability to find the core of Harrison's music, and create passages of both rich pulse and vivid melody. A clear asset to any gig he takes, he's also a broadly versed player, making him an ideal fit for Harrison, whose tastes run from classical music and the southern rock of the Allman Brothers Band—his version of that group's "Whipping Post" an unexpected but highly successful addition to Search (Sunnyside, 2012) that demonstrated just how well he can integrate his own compositional approach while, at the same time respecting the source—to African music, (now) Indian music and far, far beyond.

It might seem a challenge to demonstrate an artist's breadth in the space of a single evening, but at the start of a March that unfortunately decided to come in like a lion, Harrison and his group managed to do just that, confirming everything those familiar with his work already knew while, at the same time, making some new converts.

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