A highly adept guitarist and composer, Joel Harrison plays a galvanizing blend of modern creative jazz, classical, Americana, and ethnic fusion. Initially emerging in the Bay Area in the '80s, Harrison gained wider attention in New York, issuing a number of critically lauded albums like 1997's Range of Motion, 2003's Free Country with Norah Jones, and 2009's funky Urban Myths with longtime collaborator saxophonist David Binney. Continuously exploring new sounds, he has recorded with an ever-evolving mix of small and larger ensembles, as evidenced by his 2013 big-band date Infinite Possibility and collaborations with Indian sarod player Anupam Shobhakar, including 2014's Leave the Door Open and 2019's Still Point: Turning World.
Born in 1957 in Washington, D.C., Harrison grew up in an educated household the son of Gilbert Harrison, the editor of the New Republic magazine, and Anne Harrison, a philanthropist and education advocate. Around age nine, he started taking guitar lessons, initially focusing on classical music. He eventually switched to an electric guitar and by age 14 had discovered the music of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Danny Gatton, and others. Following his high school years playing in various rock bands, he enrolled for study at New York's Bard College. There he began delving into jazz and studying composition with Joan Tower. He also spent time at Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio in Woodstock.
After college, he spent time freelancing in Boston and then the San Francisco Bay Area before landing in New York City. There, he made his debut with 1996's 3+3=7, a textured recording featuring collaborations with guitarists Nels Cline and Steve Cardenas. He followed a year later with the octet album Range of Motion and the equally inventive 2001 album Transience. With 2003's Free Country, Harrison brought out his Americana influences, working with vocalist Norah Jones and playing a mix of traditional pieces as well as songs by George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Woody Guthrie. Country was also the focus of 2004's So Long 2nd Street, which featured saxophonist David Binney, and found Harrison re-interpreting songs by Jimmy Webb and Carter Stanley.
In 2005, he explored the music of George Harrison with Harrison on Harrison, playing with saxophonist David Liebman, pianist Uri Caine, and drummer Dan Weiss. He then paired with saxophonist Binney for several dates including 2007's Harbor and 2008's The Wheel with trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The poetic Passing Train arrived in 2008 and again found Harrison putting a spotlight on his more folk-oriented, singer/songwriter skills. He then shifted focus, diving into funky avant-garde jazz on 2009's Urban Myths. 2010 proved a fruitful year as Harrison was named a Guggenheim Fellow and founded the Alternative Guitar Summit Festival. More far-reaching albums followed, including 2011's string quartet album The Music of Paul Motian, 2012's exploratory quintet album Holy Abyss, and 2012's classical-influenced Search, the latter of which featured a reworking on the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" as well as a rendition of composer Olivier Messiaen's "O Sacrum Convivium."
In the late spring of 2013, Harrison released Infinite Possibility featuring his 19-piece big band. The following year, he collaborated with Indian sarod player Anupam Shobhakar for the world fusion-inflected Leave the Door Open. Also in 2014, he released the covers album Mother Stump, which found him reworking songs by Buddy Miller, Leonard Cohen, Luther Vandross, and others. He then formed the expansive ensemble Joel Harrison 5 with trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassoonist Paul Hanson, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Brian Blade for 2015's Spirit House. In 2017, he returned to his solo work with the deeply intimate folk and singer/songwriter-leaning album Other River. Still Point: Turning World arrived in 2019 and featured contributions from Shobhakar and Kneebody saxophonist Ben Wendel, contemporary percussion quartet Talujon, bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Dan Weiss, and Indian sarod player Anupam Shobhakar.
In the spring of 2020, Harrison released the conceptual America at War with an 18-piece big band. Conducted by trumpeter Matt Holman, it comprised eight originals penned between 2014-2017, and a cover of Tom Waits' anti-war song "Day After Tomorrow" (sung by the guitarist to close the recording), the set focused its attention on the devastating consequences of various armed conflicts conducted by the United States throughout its history. Some of Harrison's collaborators included Jon Irabagon, Seneca Black, Ned Rothenberg, and Curtis Hasselbring.
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