About 15 minutes into our phone interview, the Brooklyn-based guitarist Joel Harrison stops me. “Do me a favor,” he says. “Tell me, even if you have to look it up right now online, what is the definition of a concept?” At first, it seems like a strange question. Over the last 25 years, Harrison has dropped album after album of Big Idea music—Paul Motian tunes arranged for strings and guitars; projects dealing with Indian music; a trio of releases mixing jazz and country. But the truth is that these themes come to him in such a natural way that they barely register as anything out of the ordinary. They’re merely sparks to get the ball rolling. “A way of lighting up my imagination,” he explains.
Harrison’s new large-ensemble album, America at War! (Sunnyside), is right in line with his previous work. But this time, instead of exploring a musical genre or the compositions of a single artist, he’s thinking politically. The anthemic “March on Washington” features nods to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and a screaming, runaway-train wah solo from Harrison; the reflective “My Father in Nagasaki” includes beautifully anguished work from Ned Rothenberg on shakuhachi. When Harrison began conceiving of the album, he was thinking of America’s seemingly endless appetite for bloodshed.
“At that time—I don’t really remember why—but I was just particularly aggrieved at what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “And I began to think about my lifetime as a citizen of a country that I really do love, but sometimes I’m ashamed of. And I thought, ‘My god, there’s been so much military conflict that has led to disasters in my lifetime.’ And this is just something we don’t talk about enough.”
Musically, the guitarist was hoping to unite his current passions (including classical music) with the interests of his younger self (such as rock). The resulting compositions are sophisticated and introspective, but with moments of aggression throughout.
“I’d made, in my first big-band record [2013’s Infinite Possibility], a number of pieces that had a certain focus that I would say was a bit more classical,” Harrison says. “Or orchestral. And while I didn’t want to abandon that, I also felt I wanted to create a really intense rhythmic record, and something that occasionally would have the feel of an enormous rock band—and embrace that part of my past.”
In Harrison’s experience, musical concepts can also come about by chance. When the guitarist was starting to think about playing the compositions that make up 2011’s The Music of Paul Motian, he was simultaneously immersing himself in the world of two violins, viola, and cello. And since there was no point in going about Motian’s music in any conventional way, the solution seemed to be right there in front of him.
“I was listening to a lot of string quartet music at the time,” Harrison recalls. “Shostakovich and Bartók and Beethoven and all that. And I thought, ‘There’s something so magical about [Motian’s] music.’ I mean, I probably saw his trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano 50 times. Maybe a hundred, in terms of all the sets I saw. And I just felt like I had to reckon with this music. And I knew that if I went out there and tried to play this music with a bass player and drummer, it would be a joke! Because how was I gonna compare with Bill Frisell, who’d been playing his music for 20 years and is Bill Frisell? So that was out of the question.”
For Harrison, a lot of themes arise out of who you know, and the need to collaborate. When the guitarist became acquainted with a sarod player, he felt compelled to combine forces. The relationship resulted in the albums Leave the Door Open and Still Point: Turning World.
“I met this incredible Indian musician, Anupam Shobhakar, and I love Indian music, and I was like, ‘Well, how can I figure out how to incorporate this into what I do and vice versa?’” he remembers. “It really starts there, and it’s always a give and take. Especially with something like that, you have to be really clear about what you don’t know. And ask for help. I had a lot of help from him, a lot of help from people like [drummer] Dan Weiss. And not try to pretend, but come up with something that feels resonant to who you are, while allowing for the influences around you.”
In addition to his duties as a guitarist, composer, and bandleader, Harrison runs the annual avant-garde six-string festival Alternative Guitar Summit. In May, the fest was supposed to present the 1970 Project, an evening of music from that year as interpreted by Vernon Reid, Scott Metzger, Harrison, and others. The event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the concept still stands.
“I think it really is helpful to an audience, and to a listener, to have a through line to help them relate to what you’re doing,” Harrison notes. “You know, the 1970 Project—well, the music’s not gonna sound like 1970, that’s for sure. But it’s gonna be an anchor for exploration. And that’s what you’re looking for.”
Theme and Variations
Here’s the equipment that Joel Harrison’s currently favoring.
Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Deluxe 40th Anniversary Reissue. “A good Les Paul is a powerful tool. The heft, the sustain, the blunt force. I have always loved Duane Allman’s tone, not to mention Leslie West, Warren Haynes, etc. Maybe too heavy for all gigs, but a blessing in the studio.”
Amplifier: Carr Rambler. “I always played old Fenders, but got tired of them breaking down. Carrs are exceptional in every way. The Rambler is close to a Fender sound. My first and only ‘boutique’ amp.”
Pedals: EarthQuaker Hoof Reaper Fuzz—“a very scary pedal! A Godzilla-type blast. When you step on the octave function, it’s a bit apocalyptic”—and t.c. electronic Nova Repeater delay. “I can hardly live without the atmosphere it can bring. Not a typical delay. I use the backwards setting and it offers a creamy kind of levitation.”