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Joel Harrison's 'Holy Abyss'

January 30, 2014
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“I’VE BEEN BLENDING GENRES IN MY works for many years, but I’ve lost the words to describe what I do, because they all sound so trite now,” says Joel Harrison. “I mean, haven’t phrases such as ‘genre-bending,’ ‘eclectic,’ and ‘world music’ essentially lost all meaning at this point?”

Perhaps so, but the fact that there may be a dearth of adequate phrases to describe Harrison’s music in no way devalues his singular and occasionally visionary compositional approach. For example, on 2008’s The Wheel, Harrison brilliantly integrated classical string composition with jazz improvisation and ideas derived from traditional African and Appalachian music—eliciting effusive praise from critics and artists alike.

Harrison’s other releases span a vast stylistic realm from string quartet-plus-guitars interpretations of jazz drummer Paul Motion’s compositions (The Music of Paul Motion) to a collection of folksongs from around the globe (Native Lands) to his takes on alt-country (Free Country) and songs by the Beatle of the same name (Harrison on Harrison). He even went the singer-songwriter route on Passing Train.

To realize his iconoclastic works, Harrison has joined forces with a stellar array of other forward-thinking artists, including fellow guitar renegades Nels Cline, Nguyên Lê, and Liberty Ellman. More recently, Harrison has come under the spell of Indian music—largely due to his collaborations with sarod master Anupam Shobhaker, whose influence can clearly be heard in the guitarist’s National steel and electric slide playing.

On last year’s Search [Sunnyside], Harrison continued his exploration of the jazz-classical nexus with a septet that included saxophone, Hammond B3, violin, and cello. Two particularly surprising covers appear back-to-back: an arrangement of 20th century classical com- poser Oliver Messiaen’s “O Sacrum Convivium” featuring lovely blues-inflected jazz guitar lines, and a rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” that doesn’t feature a guitar solo (though Harrison kills on the brief slide solos that bookend the piece).

Harrison’s guitar work is also spotlighted on his most recent release, Holy Abyss [Cuneiform], an intriguing collaboration with Italian bassist Lorenzo Feliciati. “For me, that record was more about guitar playing than writing,” says Harrison, “and I play more guitar on it than on most of my records.”

Do you think of yourself primarily as a guitarist or as a composer or are the two inseparable?
They’re pretty inseparable, although over the past few years I’ve done more and more composing and that aspect of what I do has been developing greatly. Composing brings me a lot of joy, and I feel like I have an almost unlimited amount of ideas that I’m eager to pursue. With guitar, as much as I love it, I feel there’s so much that’s already been done that’s great that it is harder to find some - thing fresh to say.

What percentage of your music is composed directly on the guitar?
My composing is mostly done straight onto score paper or with a little help from the piano, because you can see the way the harmony is moving a lot easier, especially when composing for larger ensembles. As far as guitar playing is concerned, one of the great- est joys in life for me is playing simple American guitar music, be it New Orleans music or Appalachian music or just plain blues. But when it comes to composing, I’m not going to write, say, a blues tune, because I think that would be redundant.

Maybe so, but you did manage to sneak some blues licks into “Sacrum Continuum.”
Oh yeah.

In 2012, what does “jazz” really mean?
I have no idea, but I will say I’m extremely hostile to anybody who tells me that they do know. One thing I can tell you, though, is that more and more jazz music is coming from the conservatories rather than the street— for better or worse.

Did you study classical guitar, and if so, how much of the technique do you still employ?
I played classical guitar for a couple years but quickly realized that playing classical style and every other style were in many ways mutually exclusive. Classical guitar requires its own obedience if you are going to get anywhere with it, and it really wasn’t my voice. The repertoire was also limited, though it was great being exposed to the music of composers such as Bach. The experience probably helped my right-hand tech- nique to some degree. My left-hand technique and chord-voicings come more from studying with Mick Goodrick and Charlie Bana- cos, and from listening to Jim Hall.

Speaking of right-hand technique, do you mostly pick down/up/down/up?
Yes, almost always, though I also try to do as much legato pulling off and hammer- ing on as possible. Lately, however, I’ve been practicing picking irregular patterns—groups of five, seven, etc.—so that my up and down strokes are equally strong.

What picks do you use?
I use Fender extra heavies, though frankly I should probably think more about how picks affect tone. Someone loaned me a tortoise-shell pick and that sounded really good.

You are playing Gibson Les Paul and ES-345 guitars, and a PRS Hollowbody in the photos I’ve seen. Are those your primary guitars?
I have a bunch of guitars. The one I’ve had the longest is a ’63 Gibson SG, which I use for slide a lot. I also have an old Telecaster that I love, but it doesn’t go out of the house much. I’ve gotten some of my best tones on record using that Tele. The PRS is a relatively new purchase, and it is nearly perfect. It’s light, it plays wonderfully, and it stays in tune. Paul Reed Smith is some sort of genius. I also love my National steel resonator.

What do you string your electrics with?
D’Addario .011 sets mostly, but some- times .010 sets.

Do you have a favorite amp?
I’ve been using old Fenders for years. I just got a brown ’74 Super Reverb restored to its original condition and it sounds amazing. I also have a dual rectifier ’56 Bassman that is incredible, and I love blackface Prince- tons and Deluxes. It’s pretty hard to beat that stuff. The only problem is that those amps need constant care. I try new boutique amps every now and then, but for some reason I’m never willing to part with the $2,500 or so. I’m still waiting for the amp equivalent of the experience I had buying the Paul Reed Smith guitar.

Your amp choices suggest that you get distortion from pedals. Which ones, and what other pedals are critical to your sound?
I seldom play venues where I can turn up enough to get distortion from my amp. I’ve been using a Boss DS-1 since 1982, which I really love, but I also have an SMS Earth Drive that Nels Cline recommended, and a Hermida Audio Zen Drive. A few other pedals that I use regularly are a Line 6 DL4 delay, a DigiTech Whammy, a Cry Baby wah, and most recently an Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing ring modulator. I also have an old rack-mounted Lexicon PCM-41 digital delay modded for longer delay times, which is a fantastic instrument, and Ben Monder inspired me to buy a Lexicon LXP-1 reverb.

Passing Train is a collection of songs. What makes a great song as opposed to a great com- position?
Early in life I was enamored with songs by Jimi Hendrix, Greg Allman, James Taylor, and other great writers, and I actually started out as a songwriter myself. As for what makes a great song, take Merle Haggard for exam- ple. He condenses a whole novel into about 12 lines and does so with impeccable musi- cianship and a voice that immediately gets inside your heart. Writing a great song is one of the hardest things that any musician can do. I’ve written a few songs that I’m proud of, but mostly I try to speak like that through my instrument when I improvise.

What led to your recording Harrison on Harrison?
I realized about 12 years ago that although I’m grateful for having learned some of the standard jazz repertoire, that wasn’t my business in life. When not writing my own music, I prefer to play music that hasn’t already been widely articulated by hundreds of other jazz artists, because it is more exciting and feels more open. Recording Harrison on Harrison, Free Country, and similar albums is essentially my way of creating my own jazz repertoire.

You have collaborated with instrumentalists from around the globe. Provide some examples of how non-Western approaches and techniques have affected your guitar playing.
I’ve been playing a lot of slide for the past few years and at least half the time I’m trying to play Indian music, because the way Indian musicians move between pitches— the melodic ornamentation—is an incred- ibly beautiful thing. Jeff Beck and Derek Trucks have been exploring similar things, and that’s really exciting because it is kind of fresh on the electric guitar. That’s one area where I can keep growing and not be rehashing what’s been done before.

African choral and stringed instrument music has also been a big influence. The polyphonic right-hand picking pattern in 5/4 that I play on “Wishing Well” (from Passing Train), for example, was inspired by African music. There are rich traditions involving guitar-like instruments all across the planet, and I think they are great places for guitar- ists to look for inspiration.

What are your thoughts on the connection between contemporary classical and jazz com- position?
There is an amazing wealth of material from throughout the history of classical music, surprisingly little of which has worked its way into the jazz continuum. There have been major exceptions, of course, such as the music of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller, and George Russell— but generally there has been a great deal of antipathy amongst jazz musicians, particularly regarding notation. If you take the time to analyze and really understand some of the great classical pieces, however, you’ll discover secrets that you’ll be able to use for the rest of your life. There are universes within universes in any great composition. It is a little different when it comes to improvisation, as many jazz musicians listen to a tremendous variety of music, including classical music, and incorporate ideas from that music into their improvising. To me, some of the most interesting music balances notation and improvisation in equal measure. That’s the approach I took on The Wheel.

Why did you choose not to take the main solo on your cover of “Whipping Post”?
I’ll be honest, that was a hard solo to give up. But I wanted to avoid the obvious comparisons, and it would have been really hard to get the sound of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts out of my head, so I decided that by giving the solo to the cellist I’d be doing something with the piece that no one had done before. At the same time, I wanted to play some nasty slide, so I weighed in on the intro and the outro.

Your slide parts fit perfectly with the tune, but they are pretty outside, and don’t really say “Southern rock.”
What could be stupider than me trying to sound like Duane Allman? I’d love for Derek Trucks and the guys who originated this music to hear my version and say, “Wow, I’m so happy that this guy did something that we haven’t already done with it. God bless him, he really took a chance and fol- lowed his own course.”

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