In the 1920s, European classical composers—including Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Milhaud— incorporated jazz elements, some in the spirit of exploration, some in pursuit of fashion. In the 1950s, such American jazz musicians as John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Gunther Schuller reversed the tide in what Schuller named the Third Stream. Today, artists from both sides of the border—from the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can to Keith Jarrett and Esperanza Spalding— cross back and forth freely.
Guitarist Joel Harrison, a Washington D.C. native who lived in the Bay Area for a decade before moving to New York in 1999, has filled his musical passport with stamps from Tibet, India, Bulgaria, Bali, China, and West Africa. But his experimentation with classical influences sets the tone for Search. Harrison has already proven himself a master in the field. When he wrote for woodwinds on 1997’s Range of Motian, for string quartet on 2009’s The Wheel, and for cello and violin on 2010’s Life Force, his music never felt forced or Frankensteinian.
On Search, he leads his septet—with tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist and Hammond B-3 ace Gary Versace, violinist Chris Howes, cellist Dana Leong, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Clarence Penn—through five original pieces (from just over two to just under 15 minutes in length) and two cover versions that couldn’t be more disparate. It’s the eight-and-a-half minute interpretation of “Whipping Post” that’s sure to attract the most attention, and deservedly so. As iconic as the Allman Brothers’ live At Fillmore East rendition might be, and as big a hoot Frank Zappa made of the song (after subtitling one of his own tunes “Whipping Floss”), this version is an instant classic. It recreates that powerful churning rhythm and adds choppier jazz drumming accents; it offers searing blues-rock slide guitar and soaring sax over soulful organ; and it boasts a Leong cello solo that takes the music into a new stratosphere. The second cover, Olivier Messiaen’s “O Sacrum Conivium,” follows immediately and gives the listener a six-minute respite in a lighter, more contemplative musical space.
That contrast is similar to the one “Whipping Post” provides against the gravitas of the four extended Harrison compositions that precede it. The heaviest is the 15-minute “A Magnificent Death.” It features the voice of Harrison’s friend Jim Estabrook, recorded at his bedside while he was dying of cancer, and provides the album’s musical and emotional touchstone. Here, as in the album opener “Grass Valley and Beyond,” Harrison owes less to the European composers who borrowed from jazz than to his homeland forebears Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. Harrison’s Search is a kind of jazz-classical Americana (akin to that of Bill Frisell), which is not surprising given that he has recorded Appalachian tunes and songs by Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash.
As a player, Harrison doesn’t bury his guitar playing on these tracks, which occupy wide and deep sonic spaces with finely nuanced detail, but neither does he draw attention to it. His timbres are as multifarious, carefully rendered, and free of cliché as his arrangements. There is no realm, it seems, that he cannot inhabit with eloquence and grace.