Named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010, Washington D.C. native Joel Harrison has long been recognized as a highly gifted guitarist, composer, arranger, vocalist and songwriter. A survey of Harrison’s body of work would be a bit like spinning a globe and stumbling on regions with names like Duke Ellington, Hendrix, The Beatles, John Mclaughlin, and Charles Ives. Wielding a focused lens and an ever-increasing courage to take risks with his art, Harrison has quickly blossomed from mentorships with Joan Tower, Ali Akbar Khan and Charlie Banacos into one of the most respected artists of his generation.
Harrison is a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition, and has received support from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer, the Flagler Cary Trust, NYSCA, New Music USA, and the Jerome Foundation. He has released 17 cds since 1995 as a leader, and has appeared high up on the “Rising Star” Downbeat Magazine poll for many years. His most recent efforts include Mother Stump (Cuneiform), where Harrison finally puts himself out front as a guitarist, leading a trio that catalyzes numerous American guitar styles, in a stunning display of raw sound and emotion that both soothes and rocks. And now the recently released Spirit House with a stellar quintet of Cuong Vu (trpt), Paul Hanson (bassoon), and Brian Blade (drums).
His 2013 release, Infinite Possibility, new music for a 19 piece jazz orchesta, received a four and a half star review from Downbeat. AllMusic called it “a stellar exercise in ambition and vision.” Past works include Harrison on Harrison (Highnote, 2005), exploring the music of George Harrison, (Dave Liebman, Uri Caine and David Binney), Free Country (Norah Jones, Binney, Gary Versace), and the septet Search (Donny McCaslin, Stephan Crump, Dana Leong). All display his affection for country, gospel, Indian, modern jazz, classical concepts, and of course his dry sense of humor dispatched with a Zen sensibility.
Harrison has composed several non-improvised works as well, including the PASIC award-winning marimba solo Fear of Silence, and a percussion quartet with piano entitled Faith in Nights. He is the founder and administrator of the Alternative Guitar Summit, a yearly festival devoted to new and unusual guitar music. The combination of formal Western classical notation with improvised music from jazz, African, and Eastern traditions may be perceived by some as experimental; however, Joel Harrison’s music directly challenges this philosophical model. In fact, Harrison proposes that in the very near future we may come to see many more musicians emerging with equal proficiency and fortitude on both ends of the equatorial and cultural divide, and in deference to a musical climate defined by a directive that averts any social or cultural barrier in its midst.
A quote from the poken poetry of Oliver Lake, from a Joel Harrison project, touches on this astutely: “It’s best just to create it and play it. Put all my music on the same plate!”