The foremost of Harbor’s many musical tributaries are Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp: the smarter, jazzier purveyors of ’70s art-rock. (Not surprising, given composer/guitarist Joel Harrison’s past explorations of music by “prog” forefathers Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison.) But where so much art-rock sank under its own bombastic weight, the density of Harbor is delicate and stunning. Harrison’s compositions are modal labyrinths that unfold outward, some into sinister places (“End Time”), others into dreamlike pathos (“Harbor”). The performers, stalwarts from the U.S. and France—Harbor was jointly commissioned by the French Cultural Alliance and Chamber Music America—build their parts around Harrison and Nguyên Lê’s gorgeous, rockish electric guitar lines, which intertwine and complement when not avoiding each other entirely. Altoist David Binney often unisons with the guitars on the heads; in the solos (mostly taken by Binney and Harrison), it’s Binney again who supplies the jazz element, with cool lyricism and long, Coltrane-inspired runs.
Because this is fusion, additional musics infiltrate it: African rhythms, Indian ragas, even samples of Cajun records in the New Orleans meditation “Blue Ghosts of Bourbon Street.” Additional musicians, too, provide some of the most sublime moments on the disc, especially Henry Hey’s exquisitely tender piano on “The Refugee” and “Hudson Shining.” The shifting cast of players and sounds aside, Harrison is the focal point of Harbor, wringing uniquely beautiful music out of the Zappa/Fripp/et al. influences. Ambitious and artistic without being pompous, this is what art-rock was supposed to be.