Discovering Joe Harriot

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.

vandermark-harriott-400Harriott’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.

 

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Smythe, Harriott, Keane, Orr, Goode. From http://henrybebop.co.uk.

9 Artists and a Treasure Trove on Bandcamp

Not sure how long this has been on Bandcamp, but it’s a cool idea: Nine artists have joined forces to offer a ton of releases under the collective name of Catalytic Sound.

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Ab Baars, Mats Gustafsson, Ig Henneman, Terrie Hessels, Joe McPhee, Andy Moor, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley make up the Catalytic collective.

vandermark-drinkCatalytic Sound was founded in 2011, according to their Facebook page. That’s probably referring to the group’s web site,  which appears to be a vehicle for selling CDs. In fact, much of what’s on the Bandcamp site is available in physical form only — CD or vinyl.

Bandcamp, though, makes it easy for the artists to sell music digitally — which means Catalytic Sound dips deep into into the artists’ back catalogues. That’s the part I’m really excited about. Vandermark, in particular, has stacks of out-of-print 1990s CDs represented — such as Drink Don’t Drown, a live recording from the famed Empty Bottle jazz series in Chicago.

One oldie worth checking out is Caffeine, an obscure trio with Jim Baker on piano and Steve Hunt on drums. It’s one of so many “lost” CDs I remember sampling in the KZSU-FM library.

 
Combined with the Destination: Out store, which is re-releasing the old FMP catalogue of European improv classics, Catalytic Sound is turning Bandcamp into a dangerous vacuum for discretionary dollars. Not that I’m complaining.

A Not-So-Abstract Piano Trio

Side A (Ken Vandermark, Håvard Wiik, Chad Taylor)In the Abstract (Not Two, 2016)

vandermark-abstractI’m loving the sound of the clarinet and piano together on this atlbum. I don’t mean that in an audiophile way; I mean it in a simpler and very literal way. It’s a great sound, magnetically clean and studious.

Truth be told, In the Abstract isn’t all that abstract; in fact, it outright swings. Ken Vandermark (reeds), Håvard Wiik (piano) and Chad Taylor (drums) are presenting a set of chamber-jazz pieces, some of which really cook.

But the moments I’m enjoying most feature the clarinet in an almost academic atmosphere, music you might hear at a gallery opening of abstract paintings.

I’m thinking of moments like this stretch of “29,” where the clarinet notes are richocheting at odd angles. In this segment, you get a feel for the track’s pointillistic swing followed by the more free-form soloing section.

 
“Dhill” is a quieter clarinet piece with a more studious demeanor. The same is true for the first half of “Semiology,” but then Vandermark switches to baritone saxophone for a burly and more jumping finish.

The baritone generally drives the more lively moments on the album. “BMC” shuffles and swings almost like a straight jazz tune. And “4 from 5 to 6” is a standout for me. The band gets cooking on that number, with Vandermark bubbling smoothly on the sax.

As for Wiik’s piano playing, it helps feed those pensive segments I mentioned, but he can jam hard too. He gets a showcase during the jaunty opener, “Cadeau,” a track that includes the clarinet in some sharp-angled composed themes and a gnarled, furious solo.

So, yeah, In the Abstract is upbeat overall, with more than its share of busy segments. But it’s got some thoughtful “abstract” leanings, too, and that’s what really makes the album stand out for me.

April 6 Freebies

Huh? Apparently Ab Baars is going to be in town tomorrow, he’s bringing Ken Vandermark with him, and Yoshi’s Oakland is letting you see their show for free.

source:yoshis.comNow, “free” is relative: There’s a $3 service charge involved, and Yoshi’s has a nominal two-drink minimum per set (although in my experience, the waitstaff rarely enforces the second drink). So, figuring in the price of a single soft drink, you’re looking at about $6, not counting parking if you end up having to pay for it.

That’s still about 1/4 of what it ought to be. At a time when Yoshi’s is putting up $50 John Zorn tickets and $55 Mos Def shows (with a backing jazz band, which sounds intriguing, actually), it’s a nice gesture — or, possibly, a concession to their inability to fill the house these days.

The bad news is that this conflicts with an 8:00-10:00 p.m. jazz show at the Make-Out Room, with a promising lineup:

It, too, is free. The M-OR’s calendar describes this as part of a “First Mondays” series curated by Johnston and Mezzacappa, which sounds like something worth supporting.