Joel Harrison - The Wheel
A five movement suite for double quarter and guitar
Order number: INT 34262
Jazz, they say, lives entirely from the moment. But Duke Ellington already knew that thesis was nonsense and wrote works for eternity. As if in keeping with Goethe’s slogan “To the moment I’d like to say: ‘Stay awhile, you are so beautiful,’” Ellington worked with arrangers who dressed his spontaneous ideas in unfading garments.
Since then exponents of classical and jazz have tried repeatedly to find a logical connection between the two musical directions. Rarely successfully so, since usually things go in one direction or the other, and thus become uninteresting for the adherents of the other side. Guitarist Joel Harrison, of all people, appears to have found the magic formula. On his new album The Wheel, he is not searching for the shortest path to synthesis of two principles of sound but rather emphasizing certain aspects of classical and jazz in order to find new levels of density and interpenetration.
Joel Harrison is a musical jack-of-all-trades, who is just at home with improvised music as with rock and American, Asian, and African ethnic music. Every movement establishes its own emphases and functions as an independent piece, as in jazz. And yet it is only from the totality of all the pieces that a statement emerges to unite then and now, here and there, inside and outside, movement and rigidity. “On The Wheel, I looked for new paths to combine classical and jazz while also integrating African and American folklore. I specifically chose the two standard ensembles of the string quartet and the jazz quartet. I am certainly not the first to have coupled these two formations, but normally people add a string group to a jazz band. For me, it was the other way around. I began with the strings and then looked for a link to jazz. In that sense, a lot of it is composed music. I wanted to make a really big statement. It is certainly the most serious project I have ever done.”
Charles Ives meets Henry Mancini? Hank Williams and Ali Farka Touré chatting with John Coltrane? Sounds catchy, but it is not that easy, for in Joel Harrison’s reflective personality there are too many influences traveling on different paths to limit things to such meeting points. Until now, the guitarist has employed unusual alliances between jazz and traditional song formats. For The Wheel, however, he has taken his lead from Gunter Schuller. In the 1950s, Schuller invented the so-called Third Stream and created elaborate syntheses of jazz and classical that were way ahead of their time. In contrast to Schuller, however, Harrison tries to transport his complex ideas in the simplest way possible. His music has both gravity and indescribable legerity. The guitarist offers some insight into his bag of tricks. “You have to find the right balance. For example, you have to create a dramaturgy for a solo, so it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere. When you compose, everything is about the form. What surroundings does a solo need in order for it to make sense? How long can it go on without destroying the music? If there had been too many solos, it would have exceeded the bounds of The Wheel. There’s a little solo in each movement, with changing emotional atmospheres. Nevertheless, there has to be a connection among all the aspects within a movement.”
It is no secret that jazz musicians and performers of classical music have different, often contradictory ideas about making music. Harrison took precautions not to run into the double-edged sword of never-ending cultural battles. “I specifically chose both string players I knew understood the aesthetics of jazz and jazz musicians who felt at home in classical. This mutual understanding is important, so that such a work still sounds organic. We even recorded all of it at the same time. It remained a challenge anyway. But at least it was still possible.”
With the elegance of The Wheel, Joel Harrison has made a monumental debut as a composer of large-scale music. Unlike the music of the Third Stream, this music has no program whatsoever. Its sounds are reminiscent of a river that makes its own bed on dry land. The details are full of surprises, as when the pizzicato of the strings recalls the plunking of a banjo from the Ozark Mountains. The connections to jazz are diverse, but the point is to open up new spaces and forms for an art form that has become temporarily fatigued. That is a subject about which Joel Harrison, who is ordinarily so restrained, can get worked up. “For some musicians it may be enough to be perceived as jazz musicians, but for me that was never enough. I cannot express everything I want to express in jazz. Most record companies want you to make the same album ten times in a row, so that the public’s expectations are satisfied. But I find that ridiculous. The great composers always expanded their horizons and realized different kinds of projects. Some were more complex, others simple. How many different forms did Stravinsky make his own? For how many different kinds of ensembles did he write? How often did he change his style? We have to find ways to bring together the various qualities of which we are constituted.”
The Wheel is something round. A piece of music that is by no means revolutionary in terms of its basic elements. Harrison is light years away from being in the avant-garde. But on well-trodden paths he manages to make his way to new galaxies. That makes his music not only exciting and visionary but also agreeable and listenable in almost any stage of life.