Guitarist Joel Harrison’s first Free Country project, the self-titled recording Free Country, was something of a quandary for those record stores and awards ceremonies to whom category still mattered. Released in 2003, it featured jazz treatments of folk and country music from, among others, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Johnny Cash. Its standout piece was a bluesy version of Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz,” the heartbroken lyric sung by a then-rising star named Norah Jones.
The days when musicians and their recordings fell into neat musical categories are gone, the composer, arranger, and nominal jazz guitarist said. “That always had more to do with marketing,” he explained from his home in Brooklyn. “I think we’re so past that as a culture. Most musicians don’t think that way. There’s so many types of musical hybrids made today, so many cross-cultural experiments going on. Yet people still insist on it as a way to put things in a box.”
Some 15 years and 15 albums later, Harrison has released Angel Band: Free Country, Volume 3 (the second Free Country project was the album So Long 2nd Street, released in 2004). Angel Band includes renditions of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” The Stanley Brothers tune that gives the album its name, “Angel Band,” includes guest guitarist Nels Cline and Grammy-nominated vocalist-composer Theo Bleckmann. There’s even an edgy arrangement of “America the Beautiful.”
Harrison appears Friday, March 8, at Gig Performance Space in Santa Fe with a version of his Free Country Band that includes esteemed drummer Brian Blade.
Country music isn’t the only weapon in Harrison’s disruption of category. Among his some 20 albums are ones that explore the music of Beatle George Harrison (Harrison on Harrison), 1970s-era jazz funk (Urban Myths), a classically influenced septet session (Search), a big band album (Infinite Possibility), a collaboration with sarod master Anupam Shobhakar (Multiplicity), and a recording of Americana that reveals Harrison’s talents as a singer-songwriter (The Other River).
How do such broad musical tastes develop? The sixty-one-year-old guitarist said he didn’t necessarily hail from a musical family, though his father played violin and listened to classical music. “I think the culture when I was growing up played a part in it,” said Harrison, who grew up in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s. “There was a feeling of expansiveness and possibility. You’d turn on the radio and hear four different styles of music in a row. There was a cultural awakening of mind and spirit in the country. Everybody was into trying different stuff: Miles [Davis] was transitioning into rock and funk, rock bands were experimenting with jazz-based things, [jazz-classical hybrid] Third Stream things were going on with Gunther Schuller.”
Private lessons with Ran Blake, the maverick composer-pianist who swirled jazz, gospel, classical, and other musical styles into improvisational sensitivity sessions, confirmed his worldview. “I made these kinds of intercultural experiments a focus of my work,” he explained. “Even from a young age, I always wondered what it would be like to combine jazz and classical music deeply. I was always looking to build bridges between musical cultures, something that a lot of people are doing now. Music in America is a story of different worlds meeting and colliding — the tension and resolution that that makes, going all the way back to African culture being imported here when the slaves were introduced to a European-based society. That friction is in the DNA of so much of our music, in so much of our culture.”
But the process isn’t as easy as just throwing two types of musical styles and instrumentation together. “When you love two kinds of music from two different cultures, the problem becomes how to use that friction between them, how to make something meaningful that adds up to good music. It was a process of discovery. I had a lot of failed experiments in my twenties and thirties, thinking I could reconcile two different worlds. It wasn’t easy for me; I didn’t know how to do it yet.”
Country music was a natural place for him to find success, because, he said, there’s much country music in jazz. “Even Charlie Parker was reputed to like country music.” He cites the late D.C. guitarist Danny Gatton, who fused country, blues, rockabilly, and jazz music in his work as an influence, not only in style but in sound. “I loved that Telecaster sound and all he could do with it,” Harrison said. “I always loved country guitar players, though I was never a true devotee of country music. I never played in a country band. I just thought country musicians knew how to make guitars sound great. Same with blues musicians. Guitar-based music plays to my strengths, it’s what I’ve learned and practiced. And I always loved the stories country music tells.”
Lyrics, he said, have a huge influence on him when he’s writing arrangements. He mentions a song from his 2003 Free Country album. “I feel the message of the song is something I have to convey in arrangements. ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is a probing, spiritually based song and I had to approach it with that sense of searching in mind. But I wanted it to be something mystical, Coltrane-like, almost hallucinogenic, so it’s about going to another world.” That kind of thinking also applied to his take on “America the Beautiful,” which opens Angel Band. “If you remove whatever cloying, pseudo-patriotic context that’s been hurled at you in the song and just think of the words and what you love about the country, then it’s a very beautiful song with beautiful, meaningful lyrics. I put a melancholy bent to it. It’s important to bring out the bittersweet quality to a lyric.”
Harrison’s original music often carries those bittersweet feelings. “My greatest lyrical inspirations are Robert Hunter, Leonard Cohen, people like that. I feel that the beauty of a good lyric can sum up an incredible amount of information through metaphor, through allusion, strong imagery, all in an incredibly compressed amount of time. Merle Haggard could tell an entire life story in three verses and a chorus. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a songwriter rather than a jazz musician. I loved the people who did both, then improvised on them like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, who could write a great tune and then open it up to improvisation. Performing live, Free Country goes off like those bands did.” ◀
▼ Joel Harrison’s Free Country
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 8
▼ Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.
▼ $22, gigsantafe.tickit.ca