Infinite Possibility (Sunnyside Records)
Joel Harrison 19
Released June 18, 2013
AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2013
The most intriguing artists are those that continually seek new challenges. They grow and adapt. Guitarist/composer Joel Harrison is a musician who is never complacent, continually learning, yet always true to his own vision. Infinite Possibility is Harrison’s latest journey, compositions written for a 19 piece jazz orchestra. Like all of Harrison’s output, the music is at once contemporary and timeless.
As a guitarist and composer, Harrison has covered a lot of ground. He has written and arranged for small and mid-size jazz groups, African dance bands. classical ensembles and various amalgamations of instrumentalists from all over the world. He finds inspiration everywhere.
Harrison never studied conventional big band writing and only briefly played with a large ensemble while in college. He began to notice a trend as a number of his peers began their own explorations with expanded ensembles and felt a call. As he puts it, “I began to feel that if I called myself a jazz composer I had to tackle the big band medium.” With the support of a Meet the Composer Commissioning grant (now New Music USA), the work began.
Naturally, Harrison had already been a fan of the work of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans but he didn’t look to big band forebears for direct inspiration. He just started writing, learning from his mistakes. Harrison admitted that this was a very humbling process: “It isn’t twice as hard as writing for a mid-size group. It is five times as hard.”
Harrison grew increasingly fascinated with the orchestral possibilities, all the various textures, and he made a point to include instruments not frequently heard in jazz big bands, like the French horn, English horn and vibraphone. Much of the music is through-composed and not just a setting for soloists (though there are tremendous solo contributions by the likes of saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trumpeter Taylor Haskins and woodwind player Ned Rothenberg). Strains of roots music, the blues and modern classical all worked their way into these lushly arranged compositions.
The recording begins with “As We Gather All Around Her,” which is based on an Appalachian hymn Harrison had heard Stanley Brothers do, and features a startling vocal from Everett Bradley. The haunting then rollicking “Dockery Farm” is inspired by Harrison’s trips to the Mississippi plantation where Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf learned the blues. There is a wonderful moment in the middle where the three trombones and tuba freely improvise with Harrison, playful and mournful all at once. “Remember” is both tender and barbed, a tone poem with no improvisation, featuring vocalist Liala Biali.
“The Overwhelming Infinity of Possibility” is a bright, hopeful piece that begins with muted energy and builds to a raucous density, inspired by the works of György Ligeti and electric Miles Davis. The declaratory “Highway” is an inspiring, rich piece based on gospel and road song. The program concludes with “Blue Lake Morning,” a shimmering, warm piece that flowers with Harrison’s blend of classical harmony and roots songcraft.
lways seeking an opportunity to challenge himself, Harrison has taken on the task of writing and arranging original music for a large ensemble. The results presented on Infinite Possibility are astoundingly assured, inspired and original.
1. As We Gather All Around Her 10:05
2. Dockery Farms 08:56
3. Remember 05:50
4. The Overwhelming Infinity of Possibility (The Mullens / Rothenberg) 09:26
5. Highway 08:52
6. Blue Lake Morning 09:41
Michel Gentile: flute
Ned Rothenberg: saxophone, clarinet, flute
Ben Kono: saxophone, oboe, english horn, flute
Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone
Ben Wendel: tenor saxophone
Rob Scheps: tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute
Andy Laster: baritone saxophone
Seneca Black: trumpet
Taylor Haskins: trumpet
Dave Smith: trumpet
Justin Mullen: trumpet
Alan Ferber: trombone
Jacob Garchik: trombone
Curtis Fowlkes: trombone
Ben Stapp: tuba
Joseph Daley: tuba, euphonium
Joel Harrison: electric guitar
Daniel Kelly: piano, keyboards
Kermit Driscoll: bass
James Shipp: vibes, marimba, hand percussions
Rob Garcia: drums
Everett Bradley: vocals
Laila Biali: vocals
JC Sanford: conductor
Recorded December, 2012, at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY
Engineer: Mike Marciano
Mastering and Mixing: Liberty Ellman
Graphic Design: Christopher Drukker
The title of composer and guitarist Joel Harrison’s Infinite Possibility is an apt one. On the one level, in his first exercise writing for an unconventional jazz big band — this one includes French horn, English horn, vibraphone, and marimba — the tonal, textural, and harmonic options are almost endless. On the other, when presented with such a bounty, making the right choices can be intimidating or frustrating. This six-part suite, conducted by JC Sanford, makes use of numerous American musical forms, though they all end up as jazz. “As We Gather All Around Her,” with vocals by Everett Bradley, comes from an Appalachian hymn Harrison heard the Stanley Brothers play. It uses country gospel as a way of creating a foundation for various tonal palettes to develop by brass and woodwinds; the interplay is specific and bright before it scales itself back. Along the way there are terrific solos by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Daniel Kelly. “Dockery Farms” commences with a sparse frame, very deliberate in its use of gospel and blues motifs. Before long, however, by way of Harrison using electric slide guitar, it begins to wail, stomping as his six-string goes right at the choppy vamp-driven horns. Another high point in the track is the conversation by muted brass instruments and Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone solo. The freight train of dissonance and dynamic in “The Overwhelming Infinity of Possibility” illustrates precisely the numerous directions Harrison allowed his muse to direct him, through blues, 20th century classical music, and Miles Davis from Gil Evans through his second quintet through Bitches Brew. If this reads like it doesn’t or shouldn’t work, fine — but it does marvelously, and is the most compelling track here; the dialogue between brass and woodwind sections is knotty, defiant, quizzical, and bold. While “Highway” doesn’t exactly swing after its tender opening section, it implies it through its use of the blues idiom. In its quieter moments the extrapolation harmonies between Harrison and the horns are elegant, beautiful. The cut also features fine solos by trombonist Alan Ferber and saxophonist Rob Scheps. Closer “Blue Lake Morning” with its four distinct phases — and a moving solo by McCaslin — is breathtaking in its range of musical diversity. Infinite Possibility may a personal milestone for Harrison — an ambition realized. But for jazz listeners, it is a stellar exercise in musical imagination and vision.
Thom Jurek (AllMusic)