I didn’t give Joe Harriott enough credit when I first encountered his brand of free jazz. That’s partly because Harriott’s “free” albums also include lots of straight bebop, sometimes with complex themes, sometimes not. But I also got snobby. Harriott’s concept of freedom doesn’t come with the splatter factor of Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman.
Harriott deserves better. Playing in the early ’60s, he had visions of abandoning the reliance on chord changes, using composed themes not as a backbone but as a springboard into unguided improvisation. Such ideas are the norm in my listening world, but for musicians accustomed to bebop, it required a deeper type of listening, and of course, an open mind, which is why two of his band members left when Harriott proposed the idea.
My introduction to Harriott was Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines (Atavistic, 1999), an album of Harriott covers, but it wasn’t until this year that I took the time to delve into that chapter of history. I did some side-by-side comparisons between Harriott’s originals and Vandermark’s versions — an empty gesture, considering the bands came from different background, but still fun. Vandermark, playing with most of the Vandermark 5, holds back the skronk to re-create Harriott’s milieu.
Harriott’s free-jazz didn’t dominate his early albums, so a track like “Straight Lines” comes across a little staid. But it’s a nifty, jumping composition. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane are terrific at playing that stuff, and they add lots of frills — little blasts across one another’s solos and the drum solo — that make for an exciting number.
Harriott’s free ideas are more fully realized on “Shadows,” which uses a short composed line but is otherwise freely improvised. It’s an exercise in restraint, played at a brisk pace but with a consistent feeling of stretched time. I especially like the contributions from Keane (who, according to bassist Coleridge Goode in the video trailer above, was vital in bringing Harriott’s vision to life) and drummer Bobby Orr, both of whom seem to really “get” the vibe, contributing small segments to help build the overall sound.
Vandermark’s version is more creeping, with quiet bass featuring heavily. Jeb Bishop’s trombone and Vandermark’s clarinet paint sparse hints of swing, emulating Harriott’s methods.
Compared with Harriott’s band, Vandermark’s players are a lot more practiced at group improvising — they’ve grown up doing it. But Harriott’s band produced some solid results. Sometimes they were still grasping for the right wavelengths, but passages like the six minutes of “Shadows” channel the future of this music.
Jimmy Giuffre did it better, I have to admit. He was brilliantly executing ideas of freedom and abstraction, with results that went largely unheralded at the time. (I’ve been listening to his live stuff circa 1961 — astounding to think that it’s from 1961.) Not many years later, the liner notes for Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue would extoll the composer’s “no solo” idea for the improvised title track. It’s a good track, but I’m glad to know that Joe Harriott planted a flag there a few years earlier.
One last word, about instrumentation. Vandermark’s band doesn’t include a pianist. Harriott’s quintet did, and in some ways, the piano was the weak link, still tied to chords. It feels like Pat Smythe and the band were still fleshing out the piano’s role — how could the instrument fit into this world of freedom without causing chaos? Can the pianist find a new way to “comp?”
I don’t think Smythe fully worked out the formula, but he was trying. I’ll point to his work on “Idioms.” The song gave him a chord progression to follow, and while that creates a sense of rigidity, it also seems to inspire some abstract ideas in his brief solo. Here’s the relevant excerpt; the full track is here.