REVIEW: Joel Harrison Quartet at The Spin, Oxford

Joel Harrison. Photo credit Scott Friedlander from artist website

Joel Harrison Quartet
(The Spin, Oxford. Thurs. 15th October. Review by Alison Bentley)

‘This is going to be good,’ said someone behind me, as we climbed the stairs in the 17th Century Wheatsheaf Pub. Centre stage sat a bassoon that looked as if it might have sneaked in from a nearby concert hall, self-conscious among the solid body electric guitar, double bass and drum kit. Some of the audience had heard New Yorker guitarist Joel Harrison in the club seven years earlier. ‘It warms my heart to know that,’ said Harrison as the quartet of fellow New Yorkers launched into (the appropriately named) Old Friends.

Taken from Harrison’s latest album Spirit House (Whirlwind Recordings), it opened with guitar notes melting into the warm bassoon sounds (Ben Wendel). Wendel’s tenor sax solo had wonderful post-Chris Potter wild intervals over the spacious bass (Michael Bates) and free drumming. (Jeremy ‘Bean’ Clemons). Harrison had written pieces for the album leaving lots space for the others to improvise, with composed details as orientation points in the maelstrom.

Sacred Love and Spirit House were also from the new album. The first had a huge force, and a sense that all the musicians were totally and unselfconsciously committed to their music. Melancholy harmonies, and guitar lines elongated by the volume pedal, floated over storming funk drums and then a gentle, welcoming section. A rocky phase brought Ginger Baker and Cream to mind. Spirit House had the caramel timbre of the bassoon harmonising with and softening the guitar over the rising chords, and a real sense of reverence for the music- Wendel’s bassoon solo was slow and thoughtful. The burnished tone of the final mallet stroke on the cymbal was an ‘ah moment’.

Refuge was from Harrison’s 2014 Mother Stump album- Clemons and Bates had recorded that with him. ‘Some of you may know I have something of an obsession with Paul Motian,’ Harrison said, and the piece had strong overtones of Motian’s Trio with Joe Lovano. The guitar notes quavered gently, Frisell-style, between virtuosic bursts, but never playing notes just for the sake of it. Bates explored every dark corner of the chords in his bass solo. You Must Go Through a Winter (Spirit House) seemed the right title for an October gig, beginning with autumnal solemnity before the drums broke into a nervy groove under the floating guitar/sax notes. Resolution came from spacey guitar sounds rather than the harmonies. Clemons works with electronic musicians and has incorporated some of those beats seamlessly into his style- a truly thrilling solo on thundery brushes.

In Folk Song for Rosie (a Motian composition from Mother Stump) the shimmering drums filled the spaces between the bass riffs as Wendel blew Love Supreme-ish notes over a fuzzed Hendrix groove. The audience especially loved this one. Some Thoughts on Kenny Kirkland (Spirit House) had Harrison singing a tribute to Kirkland (a little Donald Fagen in the vocal tone.) The melody sounded folk-rock but the bass notes were pulling it into harmonic outer space.

The Mother Stump album was Harrison’s return to his musical roots, growing up in the 60s and 70s in Washington D.C. His guitar version of I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know was as nuanced as Donny Hathaway’s original, the strings bending vocally- both bluesy and oriental over the 6/8 groove. Do You Remember Big Mama Thornton concluded the gig in tribute to the blues singer, with a massive Chicago blues feel. Sometimes a section in 7 veered towards prog-jazz, but mostly the quartet rocked out with abandon.

Harrison praised the club and thanked the Spin’s organisers for putting on the gig: ‘It takes the sacrifice of a few individuals to make a scene.’ And a very fine gig it was- modal jazz, blues and rock- and an audience that appreciated its eclectic mix.

LINK: Joel Harrison at Whirlwind Recordings

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