To say an artist “is challenging himself” is a tired cliché, so let’s simply note that guitarist-composer Joel Harrison exhibits uncommon curiosity and endurance in his search for different ways to make his music beautiful and visceral. On Leave the Door Open, Harrison forges ahead with kindred spirit Anupam Shobhakar on a project that entwines classical, pop and improvisational modes from both an American and Indian perspective. On Mother Stump Harrison’s guitar blazes a trail back through the roots of his formative decades in Washington D.C. during the 1960s and ’70s. We’ll leave his upcoming third 2014 release, with a Vietnamese trumpeter, electric bassoonist and drummer Brian Blade, for another time.
It is not often that “world music fusion” is spelled out more explicitly or enjoyably than on the nine-song program for Leave the Door Open. Shobhakar plays the sarode, the deeper, more resonant cousin to the sitar in Indian music. It is enlightening to hear him ply it within the company of a jazz quartet (Harrison, keyboardist Gary Versace, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Dan Weiss) on, say, a spooky cover of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” with Versace spooling organ licks. Elsewhere there is delicate chamber music, more sinuous blues-jazz, and a pair of very different songs featuring Indian classical vocalists-the suite-like “Multiplicity,” with various levels of intensity fueled by Shobhakar, Chandrashekar Vase on voice and Weiss on drums and tabla; and the traditional Bengal ballad “Kemne Avul,” anchored by the melancholy croon of Bonnie Chakraborty. And don’t miss “Turning World,” which uses the same riff to bounce between a bluegrass-oriented groove and a bustling Indian raga.
Mother Stump is something else again. It opens with a traditional spiritual most notably covered by Blind Willie Johnson, entitled “John the Revelator.” Except that Harrison opts for thud-and-skronk with some Hendrixian flourishes on guitar, backed by heavy-metal beats from bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. Then we’re off into the wooze, caffeinated by Clemons, on a rendition of “Folk Song for Rosie” by Paul Motian (in another nod to Hendrix, its later reprise is referred to as “a slight return”). Harrison decants his inner Bill Frisell on a cover of Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” and stalks the deep funk of a slow blues on Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” with Glenn Patscha in the Kooper role on organ. The rest of the Mother Stump gift basket ranges from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” to George Russell’s “Stratusphunk” to a Harrison original entitled “Do You Remember Big Mama Thornton?” If you do remember Thornton-the should-be definitive singer of “Hound Dog,” later appropriated by Elvis-and more particularly know of Danny Gatton, the eclectic D.C. guitar legend revered by Harrison growing up, then Mother Stump would make a good graft on to your musical family tree.