Summing Up Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison3+3=7 (9 Winds, 1996)

Here’s a neat little promo video¬† for guitarist Joel Harrison, yet another former Bay Area musician now plying his trade in New York. As you’ll see, he’s worked in music that includes (relatively) straight jazz, through-composed chamber music, and “world” music — and he also works on mixing those elements, putting violins, Indian instruments, and jazz ensembles into a box together and shaking vigorously.

Harrison definitely sits on the jazz side of the jazz/improv continuum, but he succeeds at pushing jazz into new shapes. I got to hear some of his ideas — admittedly less chamber- or Indian-music oriented, back then — in live shows circa 1999.

One of the projects he’d worked on back then — a time period too old to for inclusion in that video — was 3+3=7, a band tilted towards the improv side of things. The idea was to pair three electric guitarists with three percussionists (almost always on drum kits and surrounded with other percussion). All these moving parts added to an “ephemeral 7th presence,” as Harrison puts it in the liner notes.

The album features northern and southern California versions of the band, with Nels Cline included on either side (he’s versatile not only in music, but in geography!). I got to see the northern version live, with Cline and John Schott on guitar, and drummers Scott Amendola and Garth Powell for sure. The third drummer was named Russ, I think, replacing Glen Cronkite, who appears on the CD. I remember Russ being really good, for what it’s worth.

(UPDATE: Russ Gold. I’m 90% sure that third drummer was Russ Gold.)

“Kali” is one track that particularly stuck with me, both live and on CD. It starts with drums in some polyrhythm I’m not good enough to decode, a perpetual motion machine rolling downhill. The guitars join with long, ecstatic bursts, slow and monumental. The guitars eventually take over with a tangled march rhythm, playing offset lines of the same melody taken from an east Asian flavor of psychedelia.

As far as the CD goes, I’m drawn towards the rougher-edged jangle of “Broderick Crawford’s Throat,” or the artsy industrial blueprint of “Cold Day in New York,” which includes lines of “America the Beautiful” followed by unison noodling licks and a general devolution in to chaos. “Ratrace” takes a choppy, no-wave hack at jazz but also dips into an afrofusion jam for a few moments.

On the more romantic side, “Skin Frontier” is outright pretty. So is “Lovingkindness,” but in a more expansive way, filling a rich seven minutes. Both bring the guitars to the spotlight, with the drummers keeping to a placid mood.

Listen for yourself: “Someday Earth (for Don Cherry)” is included in this 2003 WNYC show. It’s sort of the northern California band’s hit single, spinning a bluesy main theme over a tribal thumping, presaging the Native American influence that would be Harrison’s focus on the album Transcience (Spirit Nectar, 2001). (Hit singles can be 9-and-a-half minutes long, right?)

You can also hear a few track samples at Harrison’s website.