CD Review: Joe Harriott – The Joe Harriott Story (4 CDs)

Joe Harriott – The Joe Harriott Story
(Properbox 160. CD review by Chris Parker)

For those unfamiliar with the work of Joe Harriott, the impact of this collection’s first track, ‘Cherokee’, is unforgettable: the Jamaica-born alto player simply blazes out of the starting blocks and negotiates all the twists and turns of Ray Noble’s bop staple with insouciant aplomb.

True, his sound and overall approach do owe a great deal to Charlie Parker, but over the course of these four CDs, it slowly becomes apparent that, if anything, Harriott is a more versatile player than his American model, imbuing ravishing visits to standards with passion and grace, soaring above string arrangements and bop rhythm sections alike, but also experimenting with the basic form of improvised music in a way that Parker, his life cut tragically short, never attempted.

Alan Robertson’s biography (reviewed elsewhere on this site) claims that Harriott’s free-form ideas were conceived before Ornette Coleman’s recordings were readily available in the UK, and the resultant tracks included in this compilation, from Free Form, recorded in 1960 with his most celebrated band – trumpeter Shake Keane, pianist Pat Smythe, bassist Coleridge Goode and drummer Phil Seamen – are indeed very different from Coleman’s classic Contemporary and Atlantic recordings, chiefly because Goode and Seamen maintain a pretty regular pulse under the relative freedom of the front-line soloists, but also because Harriott’s composed themes are utterly distinctive, with clear roots in bop, but also incorporating elements of calypso, fanfares and other forms with a degree of wit and sheer panache that was unique to him, and which is readily discernible throughout this fascinating (and valuable) set.

Harriott’s other innovation, the ‘Indo-Jazz Fusions’ with John Mayer, is not available here (they were reissued on Polygram’s Redial in 1998), but a great deal of his bop-based material with the likes of the Tony Kinsey Quartet, Kenny Baker, the short-lived Ronnie Scott Orchestra and his own quintets is present in all its irrepressible, compulsively listenable splendour.

There are occasional balance problems, and his bandmates may not always play with the blazing intensity and surefootedness displayed throughout by Harriott himself, but overall this is an indispensable purchase for anyone who wants to find out just why Harriott is still spoken of in hushed tones by anyone fortunate enough to have experienced his playing in the flesh.

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