Guitarist Joel Harrison doesn’t repeat himself. His last three albums included a long-form fusion soundscape, acoustic Americana and a with-strings tribute to Paul Motian. His two fine new releases, Holy Abyss (a collaboration with bassist Lorenzo Feliciati) and Search, continue that unpredictability. Both feature small bands (quintet and septet, respectively) with horn, piano and Hammond B3. Otherwise, everything differs—most notably the guitarist’s place in the ensemble.
Holy Abyss is a set of tense, moody, nearly psychedelic soundscapes, with the guitarist clearly at the helm. He and trumpeter Cuong Vu either double or play counterpoint on nearly every head, and Harrison takes the album’s longest, most distinctive solos, including two labored, stinging minutes on the opening dirge, “Requiem for an Unknown Soldier.” He marks his territory with a rock-inspired snarl and abrasive chord voicings, contrasting Vu’s nasal, crying lyricism.
The starkness elevates Harrison’s prominence, too. Feliciati and drummer Dan Weiss are an aggressive rhythm section but not a showy one. Vu’s parts are frequently obbligatos (“That Evening”) and his solos, even when flowing and magnificent (“North Wind [Mistral]”), nonetheless act as warm-ups for Harrison, the main event. Keyboardist Roy Powell is determined to stay out of the way. His organ on the mischievous “Saturday Night in Pendleton” consists mainly of accents and spacey fills, and even his lengthy opening piano solo on “Small Table Rules” is really accompaniment for Feliciati and Weiss. Only on the romance “North Wind (Mistral)” does Powell have a major voice. This dark chest of wonders is Harrison’s show.
By contrast, Search is lush chamber-jazz on which Harrison frequently disappears into the ensemble. The emotional payload is also more varied, starting with the joyful “Grass Valley and Beyond.” The spiky playing of violinist Christian Howes and cellist Dana Leong evokes the feeling of a moving train, with pianist Gary Versace, bassist Stephan Crump and Harrison painting open American landscapes moving past. The mood doesn’t last, but it establishes a cinematic sweep for the album.
Rather than having a centerpiece, Search revolves around two poles. One is the 15-minute epic “A Magnificent Death,” a funeral march led by Leong and Howes (in the wailing tones of a Russian tragedy), with overtones of anxiety provided by Donny McCaslin’s impassioned saxophone. On the other end is a cathartic, action-packed cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” which features Harrison in his only solos, as well as burning spots by Leong and drummer Clarence Penn. The tune is also quoted in at least two other songs, the tense “All the Previous Pages Are Gone” and the sweet closer, “Search.” If Harrison doesn’t often take the spotlight, there’s no need: The ensemble is full enough that only his coloration is needed.
Widely different as the discs are, neither is the other’s superior; they merely offer divergent flavors of an endlessly flavorful musician.