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Joel Harrison: If You Have To Ask "Is It Jazz?"... It Is

Jason Crane By

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Jazz is the most democratic of all kinds of music, and I could never do music that didn't have improvisation in it for too long.
Joel HarrisonJoel Harrison is a busy guy. From his critically acclaimed Free Country (ACT, 2003)—and its resultant commissions and recordings—to his new album of daring arrangements of the music of George Harrison, Harrison On Harrison (High Note, 2005), the 48-year-old guitarist/composer/arranger is constantly looking for news ways to express himself.

Harrison sat down after a recent gig at the 2006 Rochester International Jazz Festival to talk about his life, his music, and why it took him so long to make a record that he liked.

All About Jazz: Where did you grow up?

Joel Harrison: Washington, DC.

AAJ: Was there a lot of music in your house? Were your folks big fans or did they have a big record collection?

JH: No, they both liked music, but they weren't musicians, so I would say no.

AAJ: When did you first pick up the guitar?

JH: I guess I started playing when I was nine years old. And I don't really know why I wanted to play guitar. I just did.

AAJ: And where did you start studying? The corner music store?

JH: Exactly. My dad took me down to the place near his office where there were a bunch of old weird looking guys with big ears. They were really scary and wore horrible looking suits [laughs]. They were really patient with me, but it's hard to teach a nine- or ten-year-old kid, and I wasn't really motivated so it didn't last that long. Then a teacher started coming to our house, and at around age 14 I decided that I was really serious about it, and it started to take then.

AAJ: What kind of guitar were you playing?

JH: I started with classical guitar, and I was obviously playing all the folk songs of the day. Then I switched to electric—I didn't switch, I added the electric. At first it was all nylon string, then some things happened. I saw Woodstock: The Movie. And the electric guitar is really an inevitability of this day and age. All the students I teach want to play electric guitar. Even when their parents make them start on acoustic guitar, they always switch.

AAJ: When you were 14 or 15, did you see something that made you say, "Now I'm going to be serious about it"?

JH: It was a combination of things. I think the music that was really in the air at the time involved people using the electric guitar in ways no one had ever seen before. At that time, people were creating something truly new, and I think people forget that about rock music. At one time, it truly was avant-garde, and it got created in a time of incredible turmoil and passion. People like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend—I was a kid when I saw them, and the effect they were having on the culture was just devastating. Also Simon and Garfunkel, of course much more acoustic. The music of that time was incredibly powerful, and really stood out in the society at large, and it was impossible to ignore that.

AAJ: What changed when you decided to be more serious?

JH: It was a feeling of destiny. "This is what I'm going to do." And I started to model my identity around that and to practice harder.

AAJ: Did you find a new teacher then?

JH: No. I didn't really have very good teachers. I wish I had. Perhaps it was limited where I lived—I don't know. I had the same teacher all through high school. I had a lot more teachers after that, so I made up for it.

AAJ: Were you playing in a band in high school?

JH: Oh yeah, of course. I was doing all that stuff.

AAJ: The obligatory garage rock band?

JH: Well, we were playing songs by Yes and the groups of the day. Hendrix, Eric Clapton.

AAJ: When you went to Bard College, you were part of Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio scene at some point, right?

JH: That was such an incredible place. In a way, that could never happen again, because all the people he had teaching there were part of something—like rock music was to the 60's—the creative jazz movement in the 70's, which was part of the loft movement in New York. There were just a lot of fascinating, weird individual players on the forefront of this new jazz that [Berger] would have up to teach there.

I didn't spend much time there, but I saw some incredible stuff. I went to an Art Ensemble of Chicago 10-day workshop that was really life changing. Their mixture of types of different music, and what influenced them, and their stance, the way they looked at the world, how strong their personalities were—it was just so affecting. And they were really amazing teachers, too. I learned an awful about what it means to improvise in that short period of time.

AAJ: Did you learn by doing?

JH: Yeah. They had workshops and really interesting ways of approaching teaching. Roscoe Mitchell had a class that he did where he would have everybody just sit in a circle, and there were no rules except one: You had to be in tune with what was going on. He would be the judge of that. And the moment somebody played something that didn't seem to fit what had been created for it compositionally, he'd snap his fingers and we'd have to stop and start again. I don't think we ever got beyond a minute of music.

AAJ: That must a been an ego-challenging experience.

JH: It was, but I think it was fantastic training. This was coming right from the source. He wasn't messing around. It was like, "This is deadly serious. You think free improvising is just fucking around? No."

AAJ: How did that mesh with what you were studying at Bard? I imagine that was a pretty different environment.

JH: Yeah, but I always wanted to learn about everything. So while I was always interested in pop and rock music, I was also interested in straight-ahead jazz and serious composition. I was studying composition. I was taking a lot of dumb and useless courses at Bard, to be honest, because it was kind of a flaky place at that time. But the best thing I was doing was studying composition with Joan Tower, who's now become very well known. She was a great teacher.

AAJ: While I was listening to you last night [June 11, 2006 at the Rochester International Jazz Festival], I heard a woman lean over to the guy next to her and say, "Is this jazz?" And I remembered this thing that you wrote earlier this year: "There are still people who act as if the intersection of, say, rock and jazz, or Chinese folk song and jazz, is odd or unusual and I find that amazing." And I know that even back in '79, you and [percussionist] Sonam were doing the Native Lands (Minds on Hold, 1979) record, and you were exploring things back then.

JH: You're probably one of the seven people on earth who's heard that record.

AAJ: It has its charm.

JH: Primitive charm.

AAJ: Can you talk a little more about that embrace of different styles and genres and their applicability to jazz?

JH: To me, that's what jazz always represented—a strong tradition but also a kind of music that would welcome any influence into it, as long as you could figure out how to do it in a way that was musical. In general, my outlook toward music is very ecumenical. I love all kinds of music, and I think that comes out in whatever I do. I'm a believer that jazz is not a pure form of music and never was. It's all about what you decide jazz is. There's not much of a common denominator.

So I just take what I really love and learn enough about it so that it's absorbed into my system, and then I do what I do. And whatever comes out, maybe it leans toward something that's more unstructured and free, like from the old days with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or maybe it comes from just a simple place with no composition, or maybe it's an elaborate composition with no improvisation, or maybe it's swinging. Although I'd say that's pretty rare.

But I think if I sat there and pointed out to you why that's there and why this is there you'd say, "OK, I get it," because these are really definite parts of my past that relate to everything I'm doing. Hopefully you don't notice that. You just have an experience. But if we sat down and picked it apart, you'd see that little African guitar thing, I got that from listening to African music. And that solo that guy took, the reason I love that solo is because it comes from this lineage that I'm a big fan of. That's so funny. I'm so glad you overheard that [question asking "Is this jazz?"]. That's classic.

AAJ: Anyway, when the woman asked "Is this jazz, her companion's response was "yes," which is nice.

JH: What piece was it?

AAJ: It was during [George Harrison's] "Beware of Darkness." Which, to me, wasn't even the best time to ask that question.

JH: Yeah, that's a much more normal tune. That's just a melody and some really beautiful chord changes. That's a song that people really love, because the harmony easily applies itself to a more straight-ahead jazz reading.

AAJ: I'm not sure she meant it like, "I know what jazz is and I'm having a hard time fitting this into my cosmology." I think she was asking from a place of interest.

JH: But what's so weird about the world is that as far back as the early 70's, there was Miles Davis doing Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970). That's now 40 years ago. I mean since when is rock and jazz coming together that different? I just think most people hear many different kinds of music. Even when you play a major festival like this, there's a sense that you do something like that and people are a little bit shocked or surprised and maybe ambivalent about it.

We [Harrison's band] live in our little world. We think what we're doing is normal. One of the things that really surprised me last night was that even my friend [guitarist] Steve [Greene] and Sonam both used the word avant-garde to describe what we were doing. These are both knowledgeable musicians. I never consider myself avant-garde although I really can see how elements of that are part of who I am. But most people would never pair me with Matthew Shipp or William Parker or Evan Parker. They would think I was way, way more normal than that. But in a way I started to see that the way we pick apart these tunes and what we do with them can be so unpredictable and so unusual that people might think that. Some of Dave Binney's solos were screaming atonal solos, and the textures we do are really freaky, weird, psychedelic textures, so I began to see that maybe you could think of it that way.

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