Interview with Joel Harrison: Soul first – always: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz composer, arranger, guitarist, vocalist Joel Harrison. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Joel Harrison: – The Beatles! Though I started playing folk and classical it was the 60’s rock music that really turned my head around. I grew up in Washington d.c. which had a wonderful and eclectic local scene. Danny Gatton was a childhood hero. He could do anything. Danny, Jimi, Jerry Garcia, etc.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JH: – I began to want to learn more intellectual music like jazz and classical. I loved so many different ways of making music and had to explore as many as possible. My sound evolved as I tried to write for, study with, or play with a huge variety of people, from all walks of life, various ethnicities, styles etc.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

JH: – I have no set strategy. To be honest of all the things I’ve had to work on rhythm has been the hardest, so I’ve tried to stay current, learn about odd times, improve my feel always. I’ve always loved drummers, W. African music, tabla, funk. The drum is SO POWERFUL. So I keep it in mind a lot when I write. Practicing doesn’t come naturally to me. I learn a lot by challenging myself with new projects.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JH: – Well they DO color what I’m doing and I want them to. How do I retain a core identity through it all? That comes over time. Early experiments I made were probably derivative. I failed enough times in forging my own sound, and was always open to knowing when a piece was not really “me.” It took a long time. Copying is ok when starting out.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

JH: – There is often little prep time. I try to breathe, laugh, stay grounded. Sometimes a few sips of a drink calm my nerves.  But never a lot. You have to stay out of your head, and deny entry to the inner critic. Stay in the moment. After all these years it takes care of itself. But every now and then, I have to dig deep in my guts for focus. Esp. if someone is in the audience whose opinion I value.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

JH: – We did two short recording days with almost no rehearsal! The musicians performed a miracle. They are the best on the planet. Here is what I wrote to them in an email. ” Every time I hear the record I am AMAZED at what you all did. How often in a studio (with of course almost no rehearsal) does a band sound so full of fire? Every solo kills me, and the support from the non-soloists too. It seems miraculous. I want to say I got lucky, and I did. But while I can take the composing credit, it was all your training, all your decades of hard work, all your passion, all your sweat that put this over the top, and I’m still a bit dumbstruck which is a wonderful feeling. I guess  part of this process is learning who to call, isn’t it?

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JH: – Soul first – always …

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist, you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JH: – Have I ever? I doubt it. But I’d be happy to. I don’t think about it, I just follow my instincts and hope a few people will understand and be moved. I wish more were, frankly.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JH: – Once I played in a bar in Marin County, California, town of  Bolinas, a place full of misfits, old hippies, and marginal wackos. Some old sailor kept yelling from the bar “Make more mistakes! Make more mistakes!” None of my jazz material appeased him. After every song he yelled. Finally we did a brawling, dissonant free improv and he came up and almost crushed me with a big hug.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JH: – There is a ton for young people to love if they look around. Much of my output is dedicated to that proposition. Many are not curious enough to seek it out, often because it is never presented to them as an appealing option. Or an option at all. Not enough education or exposure. But jazz will always have a smaller audience. Like classical.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JH: – Yikes … you watch a river flow. That is life force. Life Force or prana flows through you and everything else. I try to be in touch will this force and make myself available to it, literally asking to be guided. I have no clue what the meaning of life is, but I do know we are here to grow, to be enlightened, to love, and to serve. Every wise soul has said it. Every idiot has preached greed and selfishness. It seems pretty obvious which way to go if you are paying attention and ask yourself what kind of world you want.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

JH: – We would all be playing 6 nights a week like they did in the 50’s/60’s. I doubt that day will ever come again. All of us are struggling for new models. Only a blessed few can continually find gigs…it can stifle the music and make it more academic.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JH: – With the unfortunate new amount of free time, I have been trying to listen to some music I missed in past couple years by, for instance Alan Ferber (great composer), Bill Frisell (there are SO many records), Paul Bley, and newer choral music. I listened to Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna again recently and it blew my mind. But I also love some simple choral music I’m hearing, certain requiems, sacred music. As I age, and friends pass, and I ponder the state of the world I’m afraid that our inevitable mortality crosses my mind.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JH: – The music must speak for itself. One thing I can say is that my tendency to decimate perceived constructs between ethnicity, region, and improvisational practice shows my preference for unity and oneness.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JH: – To 52nd street or Mintons in its heyday. What was it really like? And then to Bach’s church when he was improvising on the organ!

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

JH: – “All I can really think about is how all of us can survive the pandemic and return to a better place…It is the most crucial time in modern history for all of us to work together not as warring tribes. Can we do that?

JBN: – Yes, of course !!!

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

JH: – Not sure I understand … I can say I like your questions! Thank you.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Joel Harrison - Jazz Composition Lesson - My Music Masterclass

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