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Guitar chameleon

MUSIC FEATURE: Joel Harrison 

Guitar chameleon

Guitarist Joel Harrison may have made his name in the jazz world, but when you go to hear him don't expect perfect bebop runs.

"I approach the guitar as an orchestral instrument in the group, not as the star soloist," says Harrison, who plays at the Bop Shop on Friday, April 26, "so when I'm writing music that involves the guitar, the guitar just becomes part of the ensemble."

Of course that doesn't mean Harrison's guitar is lackluster.

"I try to bring as much color, texture, imagination, and support to the pieces as I can," says Harrison. "Each project demands different things. My background is very eclectic. I've always been interested in all kinds of music, so I've visited American roots music, Asian music... I've spent a lot of time in jazz and I grew up as a rock and blues player. All of this has coalesced so that I draw from it in different measures when a project comes forth."

Instead of one recognizable style — think Wes Montgomery in the 1960's or Pat Metheny today — Harrison is one of a new breed of musician, embracing a pluralistic approach. "I would say the actual concept, or the word 'style' has become outmoded," says Harrison. "People are absorbing so much information now that very few of us grow up in vacuums where there's a certain tradition that we're exclusively working in."

Harrison continues: "I'm approaching the instrument from a compositional point of view, so I look at my playing and my jazz writing as a classical composer would — that is, always evolving. I'm always trying to come up with different ideas and concepts and approaches and not getting locked into any one tradition."

Harrison, 55, has been playing guitar since he was 9. Growing up in Washington, D.C., where his father, Gilbert Harrison, was editor of The New Republic, Harrison listened to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band and other acts of the1960's.

"It was an exciting time musically and artistically because there was such a feeling of invention and turning of the tide in all aspects of society," says Harrison. "Rock music at that time, at its best, was brand new. Psychedelic and improvisational rock was being invented in front of us, so it had a feeling of being avant-garde."

A major influence on Harrison was Hendrix, who he regards as a once-in-a-century musician. "He's like Beethoven," Harrison says. You can hear Harrison channeling Hendrix on his fantastic rendition of The Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" on his recent album, "Search."

But Harrison was also enamored of the lesser-known Washington phenom Danny Gatton. "My desire to approach the guitar — especially electric guitar — as an instrument deeply rooted in American tradition, but also full of unpredictable and explosive behavior, partly comes from watching him go completely insane so many nights."

Harrison's multi-directional approach wasn't always in vogue. It used to cause him a bit of an identity crisis.

"I felt kind of lonely and directionless sometimes," says Harrison. "I was attracted to institutions and musicians who expounded my world view even though they were few and far between. At some point everything started to connect and now I don't have any concern whatsoever about who I am and how to make everything fit together, because it's just a grab bag."

Harrison's connection can be summed up in two words: third stream. The term, coined by musician/composer/historian Gunther Schuller, describes a fusion of jazz and classical music. Harrison furthered his understanding of it when he studied with Schuller's disciple, Ran Blake, at New England Conservatory in the early 1980's. "I learned so much from Ran Blake," says Harrison. "He would have his students make music out of so many diverse tunes from different eras, and even different countries."

One component of third stream is re-composition. Harrison's best-known project in this vein, "Harrison on Harrison," involved the songs of George Harrison. "George was underrated compared to Lennon and McCartney, and he had so many great tunes," Harrison says.

George Harrison's songs played a role in another facet of Joel Harrison's career: Indian music. "So many of us first heard Indian music on Beatles records, and it really was kind of an amazing thing back then," he says.

His interest was further piqued when he heard Vilayat Khan at New England Conservatory in the late 1970's. "It shocked me to the core. It was so mournful and beautiful," Harrison says.

Harrison pursued the music, attending the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in California. "I don't make myself out to be a really knowledgeable person regarding Indian music, but it's always been in the background for me. So, when I had the opportunity to collaborate with the amazing sarod player [Anupam Shobhakar], the time came to dig more deeply into that."

But Harrison has not forgotten his American roots. "Free Country," a 2003 project exploring old country and Appalachian songs, featured an emerging singer, Norah Jones.

"She was playing with friends of mine and I met her and thought she had a wonderful voice," says Harrison. "When I recorded the record I needed somebody to sing a few tunes and I asked her. It was just when things were taking off for her. She appeared on the record, and before it came out she had already sold more than a million copies of her own record. That was the luck of the timing."

At his Bop Shop gig Harrison will play in a trio with Rochester guitarist Steve Greene, his old Bard College friend, and bassist Dave Arenius. "Steve focused more on the traditional jazz playing but he's also got a wide-open approach to music and does avant-garde stuff," Harrison says.

While upstate Harrison will spend three days workshopping a composition with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra through the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, culminating with a performance of his piece on April 24.

In keeping with his eclecticism, Harrison's next album takes on another new frontier for him: big-band music. "Writing for this many players challenged me hugely," he says. "The possibilities seemed limitless and it is opening up all kinds of intriguing pathways. It's a whole new world."

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