Lunaris – Frank Harrison Trio
(Linus Records. Review by Melody McLaren)
Lunaris, the fourth CD release from the Frank Harrison Trio (Linus Records, April 2014), is the latest instalment in an intriguing musical journey which reflects its leader’s continuing experimentation – with rhythmic space, harmony, thematic content, as well as with the makeup of the Trio itself.
In reviewing Lunaris, I should declare up-front a significant degree of partiality. I had been so mesmerized by the Trio’s début album, First Light (Basho Records, 2006) – which featured Harrison on piano, Scottish bassist Aidan O’Donnell and Irish drummer Stephen Keogh – that I was inspired to take up jazz piano upon hearing the Trio’s first live performance at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in January 2006. That album also had a powerful effect on other people, including reviewer Ian Mann and Lyth Arts Centre director William Wilson who, after hearing the CD, not only helped arrange performances for the Trio in Scotland during August 2007, but was inspired to transcribe Harrison’s piano performance in the album’s opening track, Don Sebesky’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which he and I took turns playing on the Centre’s Steinway when we met ahead of the Trio’s Lyth concert. We – and other jazz lovers – became instant fans of the spacious, immaculate playing on ballads such as this that became the Trio’s trademark.
First Light also established Frank Harrison as a true experimentalist. More than half the album featured original tunes (Afternoon in Tromso, First Light, Jinni, Maria’s Planet Song and Falling) alongside the reconstructed standards (What Is This Thing Called Love, Nature Boy) and a film theme (Love Theme from Spartacus). This work not only showcased Harrison’s innovative compositional and pianistic talents, but also O’Donnell’s virtuosity and Keogh’s nuanced brushwork, all bound together by listening which appeared to verge on the telepathic.
Keogh then instigated You’ve Changed (Desert Island Jazz Productions, 2007) a project which united the Trio with legendary Irish guitarist Louis Stewart to produce an album of exquisite, lyrical standards. After the Trio’s CD launch tour, O’Donnell, still in his mid-20s, emigrated to pursue his career in the New York jazz scene. In between their respective musical projects, Harrison (touring and performing with Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble) and Keogh (directing the Global Music Foundation) experimented with other bass players until selecting German-based Italian Davide Petrocca for the Trio’s second incarnation.
With this new wonderfully sensitive, mature bassist now on board, the new Trio produced Sideways under Harrison’s own label (Linus Records, 2012). This album exhibited many of the hallmarks of the first Trio’s recorded and live performances – spacious balladic playing (How Long Has This Been Going On), playful reconstruction of other standards (Autumn Leaves, Dindi, You And The Night and the music) and three Harrison originals (One, Flowing At Rest, Song for Roo) and traditional folk music (The Riddle Song).
But a few months later, Harrison signalled a major change in musical direction by replacing both his Trio bandmates. Petrocca’s bassist role was taken by Dave Whitford, who had played with Harrison and Keogh for a period after O’Donnell emigrated to America. Keogh, who had helped Frank launch the Trio and had been instrumental in its development, was replaced by London-based Italian drummer Enzo Zirilli.
Those of us who were long-time fans of Harrison’s Trio – in both its previous incarnations – were extremely surprised by these personnel changes and wondered what would emerge from this radically re-vamped ensemble. But perhaps the truth is that the best musicians – Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others come to mind – are prepared to take creative risks across the long arc of their careers, whatever the short-term consequences.
And so, to Lunaris. While many of the original trademark contents of the Trio’s earlier CDs are still superficially evident – a lyrical, balladic film theme (My Love and I from the 1954 film Apache, echoing Love Theme from Spartacus), a re-worked traditional folk song (The Recruited Collier, a successor to The Riddle Song), reconstructed standards (I’m Old Fashioned and Emily, following on from Autumn Leaves, Dindi and many others) and an upbeat, melodic original (Sunrise (Port Meadow), reminiscent of Song for Roo) – we are seeing the emergence of a quite different Trio with a significantly altered energy and balance. This is most evident in the originals: Harrison is still playing with space but with this Trio he is going further afield with his harmonic and sound experiments, particularly in the celestially-themed pieces (Stars, An Evening Of Spaceships and UFOs, Io, Stars II) which are mirrored in the images by Andrew Walton which appear on the cover and the interior of the CD booklet. And in Ascent, The Bird and BoRG-58 we see a quite different range of textures in the interplay with drummer Enzo Zirilli and bassist Dave Whitford – busier, funkier, with spikes of emotional intensity.
What is also striking from having watched and photographed the new Trio performing live (most recently at Herts Jazz in March 2013 and at their April 2014 Pizza Express CD launch) is that the atmosphere on-stage is more light-hearted and playful than it once was. Frank Harrison has always exhibited a dry, understated wit (he jokes, for example, about writing songs that are “miserable” and about not really having anything to say to the audience) but now he seems genuinely relaxed and comfortable with Whitford and Zirilli, and they with him. Interestingly, Lunaris is the first Trio CD to feature a photo (taken by Orient House Ensemble photographer Tali Atzmon) of the musicians, placing them overtly in the foreground.
Perhaps Frank Harrison has simply matured, but I suspect he is also just enjoying the freedom of continuing musical experimentation with the Trio, whose journey began in 2005. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has said: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better”. Long may Frank Harrison’s experiments continue.