Following three albums focusing more heavily on his skills as an interpreter and performer, guitarist Joel Harrison reminded those aware of him prior to Free Country (ACT, 2003) that his compositional acumen remained sharp with Harbor (HighNote, 2007). The Wheel heads for more ambitious territorya 38-minute, five-movement suite for jazz quintet and string quartet that doesn't just blur the line between musical styles, but erases it entirely.
Blending interpretive classical constructs with improvisation isn't new; plenty of artists, most notably Gunther Schuller and his development of Third Stream Music, have explored the juncture. But a dividing line has always existed between classical musicians, whose performance and reading skills made them capable of navigating long form works while remaining weak on the improvisational side, and jazz players who were improv-ready but not always the best readers, making complex compositions a challenge.
Not so today. Increasingly, musicians are ignoring stylistic boundaries, and Harrison has amassed a group able to handle this detailed, through-composed music while soloingindividually and collectivelywith aplomb. The Wheel's greatest success is its absolute avoidance of division. This isn't "jazz with strings," or "classical music with improvising musicians;" this is fully integrated music that has elements of both but feels like neither. As for the string quartet's improvisational skills, the violin solos on "American Farewell," courtesy of Todd Reynolds and Chris Howes, are a powerful setup for a scored conclusion bolstered by a fervent pulse from bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Dan Weiss.
More impressive still is Harrison's meshing of classical and jazz tonalities with African rhythms on "Blues Circle," which ultimately opens up for a solo from trumpeter Ralph Alessi that, in its sheer invention and construction, highlights why he's one of today's most undervalued players. One of the few places where the music swings in a conventional fashion, it evolves into a richer form-based opportunity for altoist David Binney who, freed from the rigors of his own detailed (and superb) writing, focuses solely on the playing and delivers a solo of equal strength and imagination. "Rising," the longest, most impressive and challenging movement, is a masterful combination of complex counterpoint, polyrhythm and collective improvisation, all bound together with a form so deep that it takes multiple listens before its many layers are truly revealed.
Harrison remains largely in a support role throughout, though his searing slide solo on the post-suite closer, "In Memoriam: Dana Brayton," lifts the piece from its elegiac intro to a more passionate and propulsive place.
Released on the small Innova labelthe label of The American Composers ForumThe Wheel may be overlooked, but that would be a mistake. That Harrison has written a suite of music that denies all borders and views music as one large continuum alone deserves attention. The remarkable group of players who can effortlessly navigate this challenging and ground-breaking music only makes it an even more essential listen.
American Farewell; Blues Circle; Rising; We Have Been the Victims of a Broken Promise; Ceaseless Motion (Watch the Future Roll By); In Memoriam: Dana Brayton.
Joel Harrison: composer, guitar; Todd Reynolds, Chris Howes: violins; Caleb Burhans: viola; Wendy Sutter: cello; David Binney: alto saxophone: Ralph Alessi: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lindsey Horner: bass; Dan Weiss: drums.
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