Who is Joel Harrison, the jazz guitarist who boldly reconfigured country music or the artist who adapted the music of Paul Motian for string choir? The investigator of traditional African sounds or the soloist who made like an Allman Brother possessed last year on “Whipping Post”? The answer, of course, is all of the above, and Infinite Possibility broadens Harrison’s profile even more. His first large-ensemble recording, it incorporates all of his interests while breaking new ground with its sheer size and density.
With Infinite Possibility, performed by 19 pieces plus voices, Harrison enters the ranks of John Hollenbeck and Maria Schneider as alternative big-band innovator. Like them, he refuses to recognize artificial divisions among strains of American music. “As We Gather All Around Her,” inspired by an Appalachian folk hymn, wraps a brash classical minimalism around folk forms. “Dockery Farms,” a reflection on the Mississippi plantation where blues masters including Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf learned their craft, alternates call-and-response patterns and eerie, off-center effects including a choir of three trombones and euphonium. “Blue Lake Morning” is a soaring meditation on the great outdoors that Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland would have liked.
It’s not often that music of such heft is delivered with such ease and pinpoint effectiveness—drummer Rob Garcia knows when to stoke the engine and when to glide. Harrison employs the full range of his instrument, from slashing highs to scampering dark tones. The standout soloists include tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, alto saxophonist Ned Rothenberg, trumpeter Taylor Haskins and pianist Daniel Kelly. Vocalist Everett Bradley brings a gospel intensity to “As We Gather,” while Laila Biali induces goose bumps with her whispered repetitions on “Remember.”