Joel Harrison 5: Spirit House
(Whirlwind WR 4673. CD review by Jon Turney)
Joel Harrison is an eclectic organiser of ensembles and a versatile composer as well as one of the most accomplished contemporary guitar stylists. This quintet recording gives us work for a particularly interesting ensemble that toured the US West Coast a couple of years ago. From the opening An Elephant in Igor’s Yard, with its titular nod to George Russell, it is clear we are in for some thoughtful, cleverly textured music – all by Harrison save for one of Paul Motian’s pellucid ballads, Johnny Broken Wing.
The elephant, I suppose, is Paul Hanson’s bassoon. That rarity, sometimes electrified, is the most unusual element here, contributing a welcome range of feelings from gruff avuncularity to some arresting wailing on Sacred Love, the tune on which the whole band rocks out to good, bluesy, effect.
He is joined by Cuong Vu on trumpet, Kermit Driscoll on bass, and the restlessly creative Brian Blade on drums. Harrison’s guitar mainly takes a back seat, contributing colours and judicious effects, but he gets more assertive as needed and has some lucid solos, notably on You Must Go Through a Winter. The most prominent solo voice, bassoon notwithstanding, is the trumpet, with Vu matching the other players for versatility of tone. He gets solidly into the feel of each piece, in a set that ranges over Frisellish Americana through deeply grooving jazz and rock-inflected electronics.
The result, like Harrison’s large discography, is full of refreshing twists and turns and delicious surprises. Does it all work? Well, the two tracks featuring vocals did nothing for me. The tribute piece Some thoughts on Kenny Kirkland is too mawkish to be effective, and the closing song confirms that the leader writes better music than lyrics. The charming collection he recorded on Free Country, from 2003, is a better place to get to know Harrison’s song-settings. For his other varied talents, though, this latest set is a great place to start.