US guitarist Joel Harrison is not the kind of guy to become entrenched in one particular musical niche – in fact, his extensive back catalogue of recordings (probably lesser known to European ears) reveals a desire to straddle genre borders to communicate his searching creativity.
Harrison’s collaboration with sarode player Anupam Shobhakar (Leave the Door Open, Whirlwind, 2013) conveyed an intelligent and empathetic appreciation of North Indian and other world music, ingeniously fusing it with jazz and rock elements; and previous albums reveal an embracement of African, Appalachian, country music and spirituals (to name but a few), as well as the clear influence of American jazz and country guitarists such as Bill Frisell and Duane Allman.
This new release release presents a fascinating quintet line-up – guitar, trumpet, bassoon, bass and drums – in an improvisationally-heavy exploration of originals by Harrison, plus one arrangement. The guitarist explains that a Spirit House, in East Asian culture, is a miniature structure sheltering the deities, “a home of sorts for those invisible forces that guide the visible world” – and hence a useful metaphor for the studio coming-together, following a West Coast tour, of esteemed musical spirits Harrison, Cuong Vu, Paul Hanson, Kermit Driscoll and Brian Blade.
With such collective experience, Spirit House projects a huge vista of powerful styles and atmospheres centred around contemporary jazz and rock, with an instrumental/electronic weave which, at times, is pleasingly difficult to unpick. Title track An Elephant in Igor’s Yard is typical of the energy to be found here, it’s dark, swirling mood underpinned by clashing, overdriven guitar chords and a solid, persistent bass’n’drum pulse; yet there is space within for trumpeter Cuong Vu to blast high into the roof… and is that footloose pitch-bent synth actually a remarkable electronic transformation of Paul Hanson’s bassoon?
The attractive, relatively acoustic feel of Old Friends is inhabited by a playful whiff of mid-’70s prog/psychedelia (mostly thanks to its jaunty, almost Hendrix-fashioned bassoon melodies), as is the tumbling Left Hook, where guitar, trumpet and bassoon superbly combine as a smooth, pseudo horn section before Vu delivers the most impressively extreme range of techniques. Paul Motian’s Johnny Broken Wing drifts freely and emotionally in Harrison’s guitar-and-effects arrangement, the plaintive unison melody carried serenely by Vu and Hanson; and that melancholy aura filters in to the leader’s translation of his own early 90s poem, Some Thoughts on Kenny Kirkland – a tribute, led by soulful vocalist Everett Bradley and Harrison’s ‘Free Bird’ guitar, to those who have departed too soon.
The chattering lightness of You Must Go Through a Winter is carefully measured, leaving a broad canvas over which trumpet, guitar and oboe glide effortlessly – a levitational oasis amongst the heavier numbers; and bluesy Sacred Love increasingly bustles to Kermit Driscoll’s grooving bass as trumpet and guitar grittily duel it out, joined by the new-age inquisitiveness of the bassoon (Hanson’s work a real stand-out). Eight-minute title track Spirit House cautiously ebbs and flows, Harrison’s sparse writing offering the intended freedom to his colleagues; and Look At Where You Are, featuring the leader’s layered vocals, closes the album in smoky, wistful, American folk-rock tones.
Spirit House offers a real sense of discovery, realising Joel’s Harrison’s own intentions: “This is a project that mixes heart, soul, intellect and wit to create music that might move in different ways… to open a door inside the listener that helps to experience something which takes them on a journey.”
Released on 7 July 2015, full details and purchasing options can be found at Whirlwind Recordings.
Joel Harrison guitar, voice
Cuong Vu trumpet
Paul Hanson bassoon
Kermit Driscoll bass
Brian Blade drums, voice
Everett Bradley voice
Adam Kipple Hammond B-3 organ
Whirlwind Recordings – WR4673 (2015)