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Joel Harrison – The Other River

Forget the boxes—Joel Harrison will bust out of them. The veteran guitarist and songwriter has recorded traditional country standards with jazz/pop chanteuse Norah Jones, big-band albums, avant-garde noise skronk, and tributes to the great jazz drummer Paul Motian and also Beatle George Harrison. He’s led worldbeat ensembles featuring the sarod, an Indian stringed instrument similar to a sitar, and classical chamber quartets augmented by guitars. So… what next? An old-fashioned Americana singer/songwriter album, that’s what.

Harrison’s latest, The Other River, is an extended treatise on mortality, love, friendship, and loss. It follows the threads that connect us, the fragile, fleeting and precious realities of the most joyous, and most sorrowful of human relationships.

Harrison says, “There comes a time when you’ve seen a lot of people come and go. Some of them disappear from your life. Some of them disappear from the planet. You have to deal with that in your songs, those unresolved issues, the complexities of your inner life—forgiveness, regrets, the beauty of being alive. It’s the most intimate and direct record I’ve ever made. It comes right at you.”

Like a coal-black freight train, and the collision is sublime. “What Ever Happened to Jordan?” is an extended meditation on a lost friendship, on the stark realization that even people who share the closest and most sacred of experiences—common bonds, a common life together on the road—can disappear without a trace.

The soul-wrenching “Yellow Socks,” the unsparing story of the death of Joel’s father, Gilbert Harrison, former editor and owner of The New Republic, ratchets up the stakes to harrowing levels. The tawdry sights and sounds of the modern machinery of death are described in painstaking detail—the profusion of tubes and inscrutable beeping instruments, mental confusion and urine-stained sheets—the feeling of helplessness, but also overwhelming tenderness. It’s as sweet and sad a love song as you will ever hear.

“Still Here” is the flip side of the musical eulogy; a percussive stomp of an anthem that loudly underscores the importance of carrying on, of mattering, of making a difference in the face of heartbreak. The sense of loss extends to places as well, “So Long, Chelsea Hotel” finding Harrison lamenting the crass marketing and gentrification of the notoriously seedy bohemian New York City landmark. “Anything good in New York will always die,” he says. “Hopefully, though, something is reborn.”

Most revealing here is Harrison’s emergence as a gifted lyricist. Take, for example, lines from “Made it Out Alive,” a song written in 2014, eerily prescient of today’s political woes: The idealists are building a theory, the fanatics are building a fence, the cynics are building a brothel and waving the politicians in/ The corporations built an amusement park, and we’re all trapped on the ride/ So I wrote this song- to Make it Out Alive.

None of this should come as a surprise. Harrison has plenty of previous work, notably 2008’s Passing Train (Intuition), in which he has focused his compositional laser beam on the art of the song.Throughout, Harrison’s textured guitar lines weave their magic, the perfect amalgamation of folk, jazz and blues, erupting in staccato bursts or flowing in liquid cascades. Keyboard player Glenn Patscha (Ollabelle, Roseanne Cash), bassist Byron Isaacs (Lumineers) and drummer Jordan Perlson (Kaki King, Becca Stevens) add sympathetic accompaniment.

The eclectic approach is nothing new for Harrison. Raised on rock, and an early fan of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead, Harrison discovered jazz while in high school, and graduated in 1980 from New York’s Bard College with a BA in composition and performance. After lengthy stays in Boston and the Bay Area, he relocated to New York City in 1999, where he’s remained since. The ever-evolving musician has freelanced as an in-demand session player, and has released 18 albums as a bandleader since 1995. Harrison is a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition, and has received support and recognition from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, the Flagler Cary Trust, NYSCA, New Music USA, and the Jerome Foundation. He’s also been recognized as a “Rising Star” in Downbeat Magazine’s poll for many years.

In 2010, Harrison was appointed a Guggenheim Fellow. That same year he founded the Alternative Guitar Summit (AGS), an annual festival based in New York that aims to explore the guitar’s full potential across musical genres. The AGS advisory board is headed by Pat Metheny and Nels Cline. Heady stuff, indeed, but Harrison is unafraid to push the musical envelope on the affectingly simple and straightforward The Other River.

“The throughline is American music,” he says. “The coming together of so many cultures under one big tent. African Americans brought jazz, blues, soul from all their hardship. And the Europeans brought harmony, counterpoint. It’s endless, and endlessly inspiring. There’s so much beauty that can be created. And then I try to incorporate elements of music from all over the world. There is an incredible kaleidoscope of sounds, energy, and rhythm.” And the restorative work of transforming loss into a luminous work of art.