Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitarist Joel Harrison Takes a Plunge into Gorgeous Indian Sounds

Guitarist Joel Harrison’s innovative, frequently vast compositions span many different styles of jazz and new classical music. He gravitates toward slower tempos and epic grandeur, both of which are in full effect on his latest album, Still Point: Turning World, featuring the Talujon Percussion Quartet. What’s most exciting about this colorful, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes exhilarating record – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it’s Indian music played with jazz instrumentation. It’s in the same vein as the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s reinventions of centuries-old Indian raga themes. Harrison and Talujon are at Roulette on Nov 6 at 8 PM; advance tix, available at the venue, are $18/

Harrison takes the title from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a reference to a mystical place of transcendence – or simply life. On the first number, Raindrops in Uncommon Time, the Indian sounds don’t kick in until about a third of the way through. The first part is a circling blend of acoustic guitar and vibraphone akin to a Malian kora melody. Then sarod player Anupam Shobhakar takes centerstage over the loopy vibes, tabla, and Harrison’s alternately resonant and jagged electric guitar. Ben Wendel’s sax joins the party: everybody plays the melody, and after a wry bit of rhythmic takadimi vocalizing, the group dance through a cheery crescendo that finally comes full circle. All this in about nine minutes.

One Is Really Many has Shobhakar running variations on what sounds like a classic Paul McCartney riff, then after a crescendo with the whole group going full steam, the song’s inner raga comes front and center, sarod scampering over spare, resonant accents from the rest of the crew. Wendel takes it out with a determined coda.

Harrison’s terse, distorted leads come to the forefront in Permanent Impermanence, which drummer Dan Weiss takes doublespeed out of a subtly syncopated stroll: once again, the raga comes into clear focus at that point, sax and eventually the vibes soloing over Harrison’s skronky chords. The considerably calmer Wind Over Eagle Lake 1 has playful ripples against stately gongs and bells

Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone riffs introduce Ballad of Blue Mountain, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, the sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.

Time Present Time Past has catchy hints of mid-70s Stevie Wonder within a catchy raga theme, the band slowing to halfspeed and then joyously back, ending on unexpectedly hazy note. The album’s centerpiece, Creator Destroyer has Shobhakar’s most adrenalizing volleys of notes within its  crescendoing intensity: it’s the most percussion-centric number here. The final cut is Blue Mountain (A Slight Return), a fond pastoral ballad and variations over a bustling, tabla-driven clave groove, the sarod fueling a series of rapidfire crescendos. The band trade animated riffs on the way out, as firmly in the jazz tradition as the raga pantheon.

November 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment