Joel Harrison 19

Infinite Possibility

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The title of composer and guitarist Joel Harrison's Infinite Possibility is an apt one. On the one level, in his first exercise writing for an unconventional jazz big band -- this one includes French horn, English horn, vibraphone, and marimba -- the tonal, textural, and harmonic options are almost endless. On the other, when presented with such a bounty, making the right choices can be intimidating or frustrating. This six-part suite, conducted by JC Sanford, makes use of numerous American musical forms, though they all end up as jazz. "As We Gather All Around Her," with vocals by Everett Bradley, comes from an Appalachian hymn Harrison heard the Stanley Brothers play. It uses country gospel as a way of creating a foundation for various tonal palettes to develop by brass and woodwinds; the interplay is specific and bright before it scales itself back. Along the way there are terrific solos by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Daniel Kelly. "Dockery Farms" commences with a sparse frame, very deliberate in its use of gospel and blues motifs. Before long, however, by way of Harrison using electric slide guitar, it begins to wail, stomping as his six-string goes right at the choppy vamp-driven horns. Another high point in the track is the conversation by muted brass instruments and Curtis Fowlkes' trombone solo. The freight train of dissonance and dynamic in "The Overwhelming Infinity of Possibility" illustrates precisely the numerous directions Harrison allowed his muse to direct him, through blues, 20th century classical music, and Miles Davis from Gil Evans through his second quintet through Bitches Brew. If this reads like it doesn't or shouldn't work, fine -- but it does marvelously, and is the most compelling track here; the dialogue between brass and woodwind sections is knotty, defiant, quizzical, and bold. While "Highway" doesn't exactly swing after its tender opening section, it implies it through its use of the blues idiom. In its quieter moments the extrapolation harmonies between Harrison and the horns are elegant, beautiful. The cut also features fine solos by trombonist Alan Ferber and saxophonist Rob Scheps. Closer "Blue Lake Morning" with its four distinct phases -- and a moving solo by McCaslin -- is breathtaking in its range of musical diversity. Infinite Possibility may a personal milestone for Harrison -- an ambition realized. But for jazz listeners, it is a stellar exercise in musical imagination and vision.

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