Sounds Heard: Joel Harrison—Life Force
Life Force I: dedicated to Jaco Pastorius by Joel Harrison
As with many musicians working largely within the jazz world, Joel Harrison spends a good deal of his time performing and arranging the works of others in his roles as guitarist, arranger, and bandleader. In fact, last week saw the release of his most recent CD, String Choir: The Music of Paul Motian, which features arrangements of iconic drummer Motian’s music for string quartet and two guitars. However, Harrison is a talented composer in his own right, effectively melding his interests in jazz, rock, country, Hindustani classical, and Western contemporary music (to name a few) into a personal style that traverses all of these genres. The 2010 CD Life Force, featuring Wendy Sutter on cello and Tim Fain on violin, spotlights five compositions inspired by and dedicated to relatives and close friends. Each work evokes such a vivid picture of the dedicatee’s personality that it seems as if the listener is meeting each one in person.
Go Towards the Light for solo cello was written shortly after the death of Harrison’s father, and makes good use of Sutter’s “circular bowing” technique combined with harmonics on open strings to paint a picture of Harrison’s vision of a giant universal wheel representing the cycle of life. According to the liner notes, the two stand-alone pieces, Winter Dances and Epilogue also came out of musical material from this work.
Each of the three movements of Life Force, a duo for violin and cello, is written for a different friend. The opening of “Life Force I”, for Jaco Pastorius, is quite similar to Go Towards the Light, but this time the spinning wheel effect of the circular bowing is frequently reduced to a whisper, bubbling under long, lyrical cello lines. The piece then bursts into scampering violin and cello parallel lines that transition into and out of rhythmic dancing sections, providing a sense of energy and forward motion. “Life Force II”, dedicated to Tom Mcburney, is darker and more intense, but retains a lyrical singing quality, until 3:10 when the tone quickly changes, employing lighter, more whimsical musical material. The melodic lines of the third movement, which is dedicated to Jim Estabrook, make the spinning more edgy and angular with a fast-paced, stomping energy. The work gains in forcefulness and dramaticism until it reaches a huge climax at the end, as the music jumps off a cliff into silence.
The two movements of My Father’s Violin are based on the pentatonic North Indian raga “Marwa.” “Lonesome Valley” does indeed give the impression of a lone violinist wandering down an endless, isolated road, while “August Winds, Desolation Peak” has a distinctively Appalachian feel, from the hymn-like non-vibrato double stops of the opening to the frenetic, virtuosic “fiddle-y” ending.
Most notable about this CD is the ecstatic energy that permeates the entire recording. Although the works are fully notated, they possess an uninhibited depth and feeling that one might expect to find more readily in improvised music. Even in the music’s darkest moments, there are hints of whimsy and humor. Fain and Sutter, whom Harrison calls his “editors and co-conspirators,” deliver tremendous performances—they growl, whisper, laugh, and wail with skill and intensity. That the instruments are recorded at close range with little reverb contributes to the sense of intimacy by allowing the breathing of the musicians and the scrape of bow hairs on strings to be clearly heard.
While this is obviously a deeply personal recording, it captures emotional states and frames of mind to which many will be able to relate. Harrison states that his goal is to write music with soul, and he is doing exactly that.