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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).

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