With some composers, audiences know exactly what to expect. But with guitarist Joel Harrison, you just never know and he keeps audiences hanging on every note blazing across his latest CD Urban Myths from Highnote Records, wondering where it will lead to next. Whether Harrison is playing a fiery riff that you would expect from Eddie Van Halen like in “Mood Rodeo” or a sinuous bop stitching akin to Wes Montgomery in “Straight No Chaser,” his playing shows a gift for understanding the different forms and range of dynamics that the guitar can produce musically. His mix of jazz, blues, country, rock, urban-soul, funk, chamber music and folk has him picking grapes from different vineyards, but when he ties them all together, their bouquet brings out rich melodic patterns.
The wavy lines of the saxophone in “You Must Go Through A Water” stretches out in liberating sprees and the psychedelic tones of Daniel Kelly’s keyboards have a crisp acid-jazz-funk tint in “125 And Lenox,” a tune that celebrates the corner or 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York. The rhythm section navigates like a fluid apparatus in these tracks, acting as a support system for the erotic twists of Harrison’s guitar in “Mood Rodeo.” The album drifts into a smooth blues melody with mournful howls ejecting from the guitar chords and soul-inspired organ flicks in “Last Waltz For Queva,” a song that Harrison wrote in honor of Queva Lutz, who owned and ran the 55 Bar in the West Village of New York City until her death in 2007. “Straight No Chaser” combines modern classical notation, improv and urban American vernacular as Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet wiggles wildly in bold streaks and David Binney’s saxophone wraps around his columns.
Harrison explains in the liner notes that “I made a point on this CD of creating music with various sections, giving the sense of an unfolding journey,” which he does beautifully in “Between The Traveler And The Setting Sun.” This piece strings a series of episodes with each one depicted by its own phrasing. Yet as the piece moves through these episodes, each section seems to have sprouted from the previous one like a well-seamed quilt. The title track has a funky, urban-style groove as whimsical shapes form around it. The melodies never sit still or feel stale, they are always branching off in new directions and feeding off of itself. “High Expectation Low Return” is the most obscure of all the tracks with jutting horns and sharp drum beats that fall into a cycle. The music builds into total chaos and mayhem until it ceases and changes its course. Then it builds back up and expels its energy in the outro. It’s an avant-garde style number that adheres to a structured cycle.
Harrison enjoys bringing opposites together like notated and improvised music, urban-funk and rock, western and non-western traditions. His background is strong in composing music and dabbling in different styles of music. Harrison graduated from Bard College with a BA in composition in 1980 and spent the 90s living in the San Francisco area, where he organized tribute concerts to honor a number of great jazz artists. He moved to New York City in 1999 and worked on several music projects that drove him deeper into jazz music and exposed him to other genres. Joel Harrison is a professional musician who seems to be an eternal student, always craving for more knowledge and then finding a forum that allows him to demonstrate this new knowledge. Urban Myths provides Harrison with that forum as he brings to audiences his new discoveries.