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Joel Harrison 5

Spirit House


by Ian Mann

September 18, 2015


A very good album, immaculately played, arranged and produced.

Joel Harrison 5

“Spirit House”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4673)

The American guitarist, composer and occasional vocalist Joel Harrison is an eclectic musician with a broad range of musical tastes. He has been influenced by jazz, folk, world and country in addition to contemporary classical music and his considerable creative output, including recordings for the ACT and Cuneiform record labels, has embraced and explored several of these genres.

“Spirit House” is the Washington DC native’s second album for bassist Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings label. The first, “Leave The Door Open” (2014) explored the interstices between American and Indian music with Harrison and the Indian sarod master Anupam Shobhakar co-leading a band that they dubbed Multiplicity.

Harrison’s second outing for Whirlwind is more obviously a jazz recording than its predecessor but it still possesses an unusual instrumental configuration with Paul Hanson performing brilliantly on bassoon and bringing that most unlikely of jazz instruments into a front line also featuring the distinctive trumpet sound of Cuong Vu plus Harrison’s own guitar and voice. A stellar line up featuring some of New York’s finest musicians is completed by the dream rhythm team of Kermit Driscoll ( bass) and Brian Blade (drums). Harrison has played with all of these musicians before in a variety of different contexts but this represents the first time that they have all worked together as a band. The programme includes eight original Harrison compositions, including two songs featuring his vocals, plus “Johnny Broken Wing”, a beautiful tune by the late drummer and composer Paul Motian.

The album commences with the curiously titled “An Elephant In Igor’s Yard”, which I assume is a reference to the jazz influenced classical composer Igor Stravinsky. The piece introduces the unusual front line with the distinctive, treated sound of Harrison’s guitar combining well with both Vu and Hanson as Driscoll and Blade provide fluid but muscular rhythm. Vu takes the first solo, his powerful, emphatic trumpeting typical of the highly personalised style he has developed in recent years. The second solo features what I presume to be the sound of Hanson’s electronically enhanced bassoon and is quite extraordinary. Taken as a whole the piece is an attention grabbing opener and bodes well for the album overall.

“Old Friends” is inevitably more subdued, a quasi ballad with a song-like structure that allows for richer, warmer textures including a remarkably agile and fluent solo from Hanson that deploys an altogether more conventional bassoon sound. There’s something of a drum feature for Blade as the music veers into more challenging, abstract territory before resolving itself with an elegant restatement of the theme.

“Left Hook” lifts the energy levels again with its tricky unison melody lines and flexible, lightly propulsive grooves. Energising solos come from Vu on trumpet, who adds an element of vocal and electronic distortion to his sound, and Hanson on bassoon, the latter achieving the kind of fluency and inventiveness one would normally expect from a saxophonist. Meanwhile Harrison is content to utilise his guitar as a textural device developing dark edged, fuzzed up, semi metallic chordal walls of sounds behind the soloists.

The leader’s guitar is more prominent on Motian’s lovely “Johnny Broken Wing” with its extended solo guitar introduction and with Harrison deploying his various effects intelligently. Harrison’s interpretation of the tune looks for inspiration to the version recorded by the late Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper (1941-92).

The first of the vocal pieces is “Some Thoughts on Kenny Kirkland” which has its origins in a poem that Harrison first wrote in the early 1990s. Kirkland, a supremely talented pianist, died in 1999 aged just forty four and although the lyrics of the song refer to him they could just as easily reference any of the many other musical greats who have left the world far too early. Harrison’s words are given voice by the soul singer Everett Bradley who guests on this track alongside Hammond B-3 organist Adam Klipple. Some reviewers have described the track as ‘maudlin’ but overall I found the combination of Bradley’s soulful vocals and Harrison’s heartfelt words to be highly effective. A keening steel guitar solo reflects the yearning quality of the lyrics.

At first “You Must Go Through A Winter” sounds suitably chilly and glacial but it acquires warmer funk and blues inflections as the piece progresses with Harrison’s bluesy guitar ramblings bookended by Vu’s trumpet meditations. Overall it’s one of the album’s most attractive pieces.

The introduction to “Sacred Love” features the unusual front line working together above a fluid bass and drum groove before breaking down into individual components with Vu taking the first solo, again manipulating his sound via the subtle use of electronics. As Vu’s solo grows in intensity so, too, does the playing of his colleagues with Hanson eventually taking over with another display of stunning virtuosity on the bassoon. There’s also an exuberant drum feature from the consistently excellent Blade.

The title track takes its inspiration from the notion of a ‘spirit house’ which Harrison’s liner notes define as “a miniature structure used in East Asian societies as a shelter for the deities, a home of sorts for those invisible forces that guide the visible world. That idea seemed the very definition of an empathetic music ensemble”. Given the self referential nature of the title it’s perhaps appropriate that this piece features some of the most delightful examples of group interplay to be heard on the entire album, these allied to further excellent solos from Vu and Hanson.

Harrison’s notes also include the comment ” I have always liked records that blend interesting instrumental textures with original vocal music”. It’s a sentiment shared by Blade and the guitarist and the drummer sing in harmony on the choruses of the closing track “Look At Where You Are”.
Introduced by Blade at the drums the piece is a kind of avant pop song/ballad featuring Harrison’s semi spoken verses. With an imaginatively textured arrangement it’s quite effective but is ultimately inferior to the Kirkland piece and I suspect that it may not stand up too well to repeated listenings.

Misgivings about the vocal items aside “Spirit House” is still a very good album, immaculately played, arranged and produced (fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman acted as recording engineer) with Harrison maintaining a relatively low key role and mainly functioning as a member of the ensemble. Hanson is little short of astonishing on the bassoon but Vu’s contribution on the trumpet is also excellent and eminently enjoyable. Blade and Driscoll also impress throughout with their effortless flexibility.

Harrison will be bringing an edition of the band to the UK in October to play this music on a short British tour, dates as follows;

13th October - Pizza Express Jazz Club, London:

15th October - The Spin, Oxford:

16th October - The Bebop Club, Bristol:

Ben Wendel (saxophone/bassoon)
Michael Bates (bass)
Jeremy Clemons (drums)


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