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January 15
more... GuitarsGearGuitaristsOctober 2014Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison: Seeking Commonality in Sound

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On Multiplicity, Harrison favored a PRS Hollowbody II that he bought several years ago. He says the semi-hollow with humbuckers and a piezo pickup is amazingly built and easy to play.

Joel Harrison frequently travels between Western and Eastern idioms—often with a Gibson Les Paul at hand. At the same time, Harrison uses his formal training in classical composition to realize his pieces using whatever nonstandard instrumentation it takes to get his message across.

At 57, Harrison has a long and deep history with the guitar. Like many of his generation he got into the instrument by listening to such prodigious rock players as Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, and then delved into jazz and improvisation. He studied at Bard College under the great composer Joan Tower, graduating in 1980, and then rounded out his education with private lessons from Hindustani classical master Ali Akbar Khan and jazz guitar wizard Mick Goodrick, among other mentors.

“There are certain things the sarod does that are fantastic resources for a guitar player—the very sophisticated approach to rhythm that Indian musicians have, ways of displacing beat and time, and adding together unusual strings of phrases.”

In the 1990s, Harrison was a fixture on the creative music scene in the San Francisco area. On the albums 3+3=7, Range of Motion, and Transience, he brought together his explorations in the areas of jazz, new art music, and ethnic sounds. Moving to New York in 1999, Harrison continued these explorations in a series of new projects. On Free Country (2003), for instance, he reshaped a dozen traditional country-and-western songs; on Harrison on Harrison (2005) he explored the music of George Harrison—work that led to him being named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010.

Harrison is as prolific as he is eclectic, as can be seen in his most recent output. This year he’s released two albums, each with an entirely different angle. Leave the Door Open, with sarod player Anupam Shobhakar, finds common ground between jazz and Indian improvisation, while Mother Stump revisits Harrison’s rock, jazz, and soul roots in a stripped-down ensemble. And for the fifth year in a row, he assembled a selection of the most intrepid practitioners for his annual Alternative Guitar Summit, including Nels Cline and Fred Frith.

We spoke to Harrison about his latest albums, the philosophies behind his music, and, of course, about the enviable selection of gear he used to bring these projects to life.

Combining Western and Indian music, as you do on Multiplicity, is a thread that runs through your career.
I’ve had an appreciation for Indian music for most of my life. I studied it a bit, but was never a true student. It’s the opposite with Anupam Shobhakar, the sarod player on the record. He casually absorbed rock and jazz ideas but is obviously steeped in Indian music. Our coming together was a real attempt at collaboration, and not something where we wanted to arbitrarily graft one tradition onto another. I try to organically incorporate his ideas and background and vice versa.

How did you go about doing this?
We spent a lot of time together—at least a couple of years—exchanging ideas and borrowing each other’s source materials. We explored the sound resulting from the combination of guitar and sarod.

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In this live duet, Joel Harrison and Anupam Shobhakar blend the haunting sounds of a National resonator and fretless sarod.

Can you expand on this?
The concept of bringing two different cultures together is nothing new. But after working together for some time, we felt a true linkage between cultures, as opposed to a random meeting. It took proximity and time—a whole lot of listening together. What you hear on the record is a sound that had been stewing for a while, where the blend of our personalities feels real and lived-in, not episodic.

What’s it like to work with a sarod player, and what do you take from the instrument?
There are certain things the sarod does that are fantastic resources for a guitar player—the very sophisticated approach to rhythm that Indian musicians have, ways of displacing beat and time, and adding together unusual strings of phrases. Then there’s the intonation, or way of approaching notes and departing from them, developed over centuries in Indian music—especially cool for a slide guitarist. Listening to Anupam play, I realized that I had to spend a whole lot more time on my slide playing. My problem is I get interested in so many different musical things that I end up moving along too quickly from one to another. In any case, we continued to play together and revisit ideas, and in the process I tried to bring them into my guitar playing.

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