“I can’t tell you how weird it is to have made Mother Stump when I was 56,” Joel Harrison says of his 2014 release, an 11-track program culled from an array of American music genres-and the first of his 20 or so albums that he could call “my own guitar record.” Spurred by keyboardist Glenn Patscha, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeremy Clemons, Harrison imbues each performance with a specific tonal and emotional identity, singing through a half-dozen prized guitars with a tone analogous to a raw, unfiltered voice.
Harrison extracts harmonic skronk from a 1999 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe to create a speaking-in-tongues effect on the spiritual “John the Revelator” and a first take of Paul Motian’s “Folk Song for Rosie.” He bends notes on an overtone-rich 1930 National Steel “Style ‘O'” guitar to transform the second version of “Rosie” into an acoustic blues. On a 1960 Fender Telecaster, he howls on the original “Do You Remember Big Mama Thornton?” and projects desolate pathos on the Blood, Sweat & Tears/Donny Hathaway vehicle “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” His lustrous-toned 1960 Epiphone Sorrento underscores the message on two takes of Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross”; his pristine articulation on a Jerry Jones baritone of indeterminate vintage illuminates a simplicity-itself reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” He deploys a 1967 Gibson ES-345 to render George Russell’s “Stratusphunk,” the elegiac Luther Vandross hit “Dance With My Father” and his own original “Refuge.”
“I believe that my music is an American story, in the sense of America as a gathering of tribes,” Harrison summarized in the tidy studio of his Fort Greene, Brooklyn, apartment on a late April morning, slightly jetlagged after a week at the jazzahead! conference in Bremen, Germany, where he’d hobnobbed with various promoters, bookers and agents in hopes of leveraging his most recent recordings into tours. A dozen or so immaculately maintained guitars hung on the walls and stood on the floor, sharing space with a large desk, containers of neatly stacked gear and several large shelving units stuffed with CDs.
“I wanted to reflect my country and blues roots, the rock and jazz and outside avant-garde influences as one seamless thing, not self-consciously patched together,” he continued. “I wanted to play some of the greatest songs I know, with powerful melodies that I could open up on, free of style or genre in the context of wild and open improvisation. I did not want to make your typical straight-ahead jazz guitar record. I can’t possibly play jazz without putting in country licks and slide-guitar licks, because so many of the guitar players I love come from that American story.”
The narrative thrust that Harrison describes is of a piece with such albums as 2003’s Free Country, with its epic readings of “Tennessee Waltz” and “I Walk the Line” by an on-the-cusp-of-stardom Norah Jones, plus a blistering Harrison feature on “Folsom Prison Blues.” So Long 2nd Street, released the following year, sees Harrison address a roots mix of blues, hymns and spirituals in the public domain, alongside tunes by Merle Haggard, Carter Stanley and Jimmy Webb. These discs-and the 2005 George Harrison homage, Harrison on Harrison-offered the guitarist an opportunity to reimagine popular repertoire through his personal sensibility, and through the interpretive skills of virtuoso improvisers like David Binney, Dave Liebman, Uri Caine and Gary Versace. More recently, Harrison has applied his impeccable craft to charts for a dozen Paul Motian songs on String Choir (for string quartet and two guitars), jam-packed with counterpoint and rhythmic play, and on recitals of long-form originals for double quartet and guitar (The Wheel), jazz septet (Search) and 19-piece big band (Infinite Possibility).
On separate 2014 and 2015 releases, Harrison has created space in which to balance the performative and conceptual elements of his musical personality. He plays acoustic guitars on the conceptually ambitious Leave the Door Open, establishing East-West common ground with sarod virtuoso Anupam Shobhakar, whom Harrison met as a result of his 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. A similar balance informs the suite heard on his new Whirlwind release, Spirit House, recorded after a 2013 West Coast tour featuring trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassoonist Paul Hanson, electric bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Brian Blade. “I was very clear about writing for that ensemble, their personalities, their sound,” Harrison said. “When you compose for a jazz group, you want the people you’re entrusting with your music to sound fantastic, so you write in a way that hopefully brings them alive. Here I was thinking about how soulful and lyrical everybody is, the beauty of their tones. Some of the music is ‘pretty,’ some is very gritty, but it’s all about their improvisational interplay.”