Named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010, Washington D.C. native Joel Harrison has long been recognized as a highly gifted guitarist, composer, arranger, vocalist and songwriter. A survey of Harrison’s body of work would be a bit like spinning a globe and stumbling on regions with names like Duke Ellington, The Beatles, John Mclaughlin, and Charles Ives. Wielding a focused lens and an ever-increasing courage to take risks with his art, Harrison has quickly blossomed from mentorships with Joan Tower, Ali Akbar Khan and Charlie Banacos into one of the most respected artists of his generation. Remaining consistent among the effect of these many influences is Harrison’s refreshing and palpable sound, regardless of the task at hand, illustrated further by dedicated studies in classical, jazz and Hindustani music.
Harrison is a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition, and has received support from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, the Flagler Cary Trust, NYSCA, New Music USA, and the Jerome Foundation. He has released 15 cds since 1995 as a leader. His most recent release is Multiplicity: Leave the Door Open, a collaboration with virtuoso sarodist Anupam Shobhakar. Both contributed compositions and arrangement of folk and blues material for a group that includes Dan Weiss (drums/ tabla), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Gary Versace (keys).
His last release is Infinite Possibility, new music for a 19 piece ensemble which received a four and a half star review from Downbeat and that AllMusic called “a stellar exercise in ambition and vision.” Past works include Harrison on Harrison (Highnote, 2005), celebrating and exploring the music of George Harrison, supported and realized by such esteemed guests as Dave Liebman, Uri Caine and David Binney. He often cites and brings to bear many of George Harrison’s own insights, along with a particular affection for country, gospel, Indian, modern jazz, and of course his penchant for a dry sense of humor dispatched with a Zen sensibility.
Another album, entitled String Choir (Sunnyside, 2011), centers around the somewhat overlooked and otherwise brilliant repertoire of Paul Motian, rendered as highly accessible and stunningly visceral adaptations for string quartet and two electric guitars. Harrison manages to strike a perfect balance between the art of contemporary classical orchestration, string techniques, and the liberating pursuit of collective improvisation, all while highlighting individual soloists.
The boundaries are further blurred in Harrison’s 2011 project, Search, which utilizes the techniques of contemporary classical composers like John Adams, Charles Ives, and Olivier Messiaen in compositions for a septet of modern jazz’s finest instrumentalists.
His collaborators have included Brian Blade, Foday Musa Suso, Nguyen Le, David Binney, Miguel Zenon, Christian Howes, Donny McCaslin, Dana Leong, Nels Cline, Dave Liebman, Uri Caine, Jamey Haddad, Oliver Lake, Jerome Harris, and Dewey Redman.
The combination of formal Western classical notation with improvised music from jazz, African, and Eastern traditions may be perceived by some as experimental; however, Joel Harrison’s music directly challenges this philosophical model. In fact, Harrison proposes that in the very near future we may come to see many more musicians emerging with equal proficiency and fortitude on both ends of the equatorial and cultural divide, and in deference to a musical climate defined by a directive that averts any social or cultural barrier in its midst. A quote from the spoken poetry of Oliver Lake, from a Joel Harrison project, touches on this astutely: “It’s best just to create it and play it. Put all my music on the same plate!”