by Ian Mann
January 31, 2020
Harrison successfully brings together musicians from different backgrounds to produce music that is simultaneously universal and highly personal. An ambitious and impressive piece of work.
“Still Point : Turning World”
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4745)
The American guitarist, composer and sometime vocalist Joel Harrison is a supremely versatile musician whose extensive discography as a leader encompasses an almost bewilderingly broad array of musical styles including jazz, rock, blues, classical, Appalachian folk/country music and various strands of ‘world music’.
Harrison explains his musical eclecticism thus;
“For many years I have held an ideal, to bring under one roof those sounds I most love. This involves working with seemingly disparate systems of music. All music exists contemporaneously and each new piece brings us a code to crack. From an early age I have aspired to bring people of varied cultural backgrounds together, finding that place where history, language and spirit merges into something nameless. Living in that commonality, and dealing with its frictions, is a truly exhilarating and fulfilling experience. I believe I have become more of a human being in so doing.”
Harrison has previously recorded for the ACT and Cuneiform labels but this latest release is his fourth for Whirlwind Recordings, the imprint founded by bassist, composer and bandleader Michael Janisch.
The guitarist’s previous Whirlwind releases include “Leave The Door Open” (2014), an album jointly credited to Harrison and the Indian master of the sarod, Anupam Shobhakar. Assisted by a number of illustrious guests the pair delivered a thrilling amalgam of Western and Indian music.
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/leave-the-door-open/
2015’s “Spirit House”, credited to the Joel Harrison 5, was more obviously a ‘jazz’ recording, albeit a highly eclectic one, thanks in part to the extraordinary bassoon playing of Paul Hanson, who was joined by trumpeter Cuong Vu and the stellar rhythm team o bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Brian Blade. Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/spirit-house/
In 2017 “The Other River” saw the prolific Harrison exploring singer-songwriter territory, but it’s not an album that I’m familiar with.
Harrison’s latest Whirlwind release, which originally appeared in September 2019 renews his long ongoing fascination with Indian music and rhythms. It re-unites him with Shobhakar in an ensemble comprised of leading American and Indian musicians and which lines up as follows;
Joel Harrison – electric, National Steel & acoustic guitars
Anupam Shobhakar – sarod
Ben Wendel – saxophone, bassoon
Dan Weiss – drums, tabla
Hans Glawischnig – double bass (2,3,5,6,7)
Stephan Crump – double bass (1,8)
Members of the Talujon Percussion Quartet;
David Cossin – bells, toms, snare, woodblock, cajon, bongos, bass drum
Matt Ward – marimba, vibraphone, timpani, glockenspiel
Michael Lipsey – street drum, talking drum, vibraphone
V. Selvaganesh – kanjira, udu, konnakol (1,7,8)
Nittin Mitta – tabla (8)
“Still Point : Turning World” is an eight movement suite that its composer describes as being “music for jazz quartet, sarod and percussion quartet”. The album takes its title from a line in T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”;
“At the still point of the turning world, Neither flesh nor fleshless,
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.”
Harrison says of the music “my intention here is to find a meeting ground between notated Western percussion, notated and improvised jazz, and the traditions of the North Indian sarod and the South Indian kanjira. That’s quite a challenge to take on”.
He describes the challenge(s) as; “how to balance extensive notation with improvisation, how to communicate between those who read notation and those who don’t, how to integrate a drone instrument with western harmony and music that specifically grooves with music that doesn’t”.
That said Harrison is an experienced hand when it comes to wrestling with such problems and his suite brings these seemingly disparate jazz, classical and Indian elements to create a supremely cohesive and highly convincing piece of work. He even adds a few more tasty flavourings to an already rich and exotic musical stew.
The first movement of Harrison’s suite is “Raindrops in Uncommon Times”, based on a traditional Indian raga, yet also seeming to borrow from Western minimalism as rippling guitar arpeggios and percolating marimba motifs approximate the sound of raindrops. Diverse elements continue to coalesce with the introduction of Shobhakar’s sitar like sarod and Wendel’s sax, another fascinating blend of East and West. Weiss, an acknowledged master of Indian rhythms, as well as a highly accomplished kit drummer, adds a vibrant tabla undertow, his beats enhanced by the additional percussive sounds generated by the members of the contemporary classical Talujon Percussion Quartet. A change of direction half way through the piece sees Selvaganesh adding konnakol improvisations to this heady melange as the piece develops from its gentle beginnings to generate a seemingly unstoppable momentum as Harrison, Shobhakar and Wendel all offer their responses. Finally the piece resolves itself with a passage of unaccompanied minimalist marimba.
Movement two, “One is Really Many” is also based on raga patterns and exhibits the same depth of colour and texture with Wendel doubling on bassoon and saxes while Weiss also doubles up on kit drum and tabla. Ward’s marimba also plays an important role. The featured soloist is Shobhakar on sarod , who erupts over a forest of percussion. Wendel’s sax also comes to the fore while the leader’s acoustic guitar weaves in and out of the piece, a vital component in this rich and colourful multi-cultural sonic tapestry.
Harrison cranks up his electric guitar on the third movement, “Permanent Impermanence”, first in dialogue with Weiss on kit drums and then in conjunction with Wendel’s wailing, skronking sax. Also featuring a little embellishment from the vibraphones this is the most obviously ‘Western’ track on the album, albeit in a decidedly complex and knotty ‘avant jazz’ or ‘math rock’ kind of way.
The New York inspired energy of “Permanent Impermanence” represents a complete contrast to the atmospherics of Movement Four, “Wind Over Eagle Lake”. Inspired by the late Japanese experimental composer Toru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996) this is a feature for the members of the Talujon quartet, which explores all the possibilities of the percussion ensemble, from the deep sonorities of bass drum and timpani to the tinkling of the glockenspiel to the chiming of bells. Essentially a contemporary classical work for percussion ensemble it is strangely beautiful and hauntingly effective.
“Ballad of Blue Mountain” initially promises to be a continuation as it opens with the sound of tuned percussion, the rhythmic and melodic motifs inspired by the music of West Africa. Wendel’s sax, Harrison’s guitar, Glawischnig’s bass and Weiss’ drums add Western flesh to the bones during the course of the piece, with the leader soloing on cleanly picked acoustic guitar. Shobhakar comes in on sarod towards the close, briefly steering the music in another direction.
Movement Six, “Time Present, Time Past” takes its inspiration from an invented raga and from South African mbira music. There’s also a New York inspired edginess and urgency about the music as the ensemble, fronted by Wendel’s sax, negotiate some complex twists and turns. The sarod is once again introduced towards the close, altering the course of the music once more.
The near thirteen minute epic “Creator/Destroyer” commences with a remarkable and truly dramatic percussion intro featuring a myriad (or should that be battery) of percussive sounds. Later the piece includes virtuoso instrumental solos from the other protagonists beginning with an expansive and truly dazzling excursion from Shobhakar on sarod. He’s followed by Wendel’s powerful tenor, allied to what Harrison describes as “rock n’ roll guitar”. Shobhakar then takes over once more on sarod, underpinned by the busy percussive undertow of guest Selvaganesh on kanjira. The percussionists then take the helm once more, spearheaded by Weiss at the kit, but with Ward’s tuned percussion also prominent. It’s dizzying, exciting, dynamic, high octane stuff that leaves the listener feeling drained but exhilarated
The closing “Blue Mountain (A Slight Return)” lowers the temperature slightly with languid guitar, sarod and sax melody lines underpinned by the still busy percussive undertow generated by guests Mitta (tabla) and Selvaganesh (kanjira). Selvaganesh is a musician best known to jazz audiences through his work with the group Shakti, led by guitarist John McLaughlin. Although less frenetic than “Creator/Destroyer” this closing piece is hardly short of energy as Shobhakar’s sarod solo demonstrates, this followed by a rousing ‘percussion battle’ as guests Mitta and Selvaganesh exchange virtuoso rhythmic phrases in a spirit of good natured competition. Wendel subsequently takes over on tenor, leading the rest of the ensemble as the album signs off with an energising final flourish.
“Still Point : Turning World” is an impressive piece of work. Written over a neat ten year period it’s a highly ambitious project, but one that succeeds brilliantly as Harrison realises his objectives, successfully bringing together musicians from different backgrounds (jazz, classical, Indian) to produce music that is simultaneously universal and highly personal. He knits the various strands together to create a convincing and cohesive whole.
It would be tempting to dismiss the work as just another “Indo-Jazz Fusion Album” but Harrison takes the music beyond these limits to create music that is truly unique. The album has obviously been a labour of love and the ensemble that Harrison has recruited, all virtuoso musicians, serve his vision brilliantly. The leader singles out his long term collaborator Shobhakar for particular praise, but everybody is bang on the money throughout.
Music as complex and dazzling as this isn’t always easy to describe in words, there is just so much going on, particularly rhythmically with all the percussionists on board. It’s one of those albums that is likely to reveal fresh insights with each subsequent listening.
Live performances featuring the entire ensemble are likely to be few and far between but nevertheless Harrison will be bringing an all star quartet to the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe during March 2020.
The line up will feature Harrison on guitar, David Binney on alto sax, Michael Janisch on double bass and Gerald Cleaver at the drums. Dates are as follows;
9th - RWCMD, Cardiff (masterclass)
9th - Flute & Tankard, Cardiff (gig)
10th - Crane Lane Theatre, Cork, Ireland
12th - Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (masterclass)
12th - Eastside Jazz Club, Birmingham (gig)
13th - King’s Place, London
14th - Sunset/Sunrise, Paris, France
15, 16, 17 – Venues to be confirmed
18th – The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
19th – Soundcellar, Poole
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