Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Joe Harriott Story (Proper Records, 2011)

I first became aware of saxophonist and composer Joe Harriott from a tribute album Ken Vandermark dedicated to him called Straight Lines. Harriott is something of a lesser-known figure in the USA and that is a shame because he was quite a talented and ground breaking musician. Born and raised in Jamaica, Hariott moved to England in the 1950’s (along with the likes of Dizzy Reece, another excellent Jamaican musician.) He first gained rebound as a Charlie Parker disciple and was an excellent bebop player as the first two discs on this collection show. As a featured sideman on alto saxophone in the Tony Kinsey Quartet during 1954-1955. The band played strongly swinging bebop and hard-bop with Harriott and the excellent vibraphonist Bill LeSage soloing on chestnuts like “Cherokee,” “Get Happy,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Disc two also shows him beginning to experiment with a syrupy Bird With Strings like ensemble and cutting a few songs with Ronnie Scott’s Little Big Band. Harriott is most well known for his early experiments with free jazz and that makes up the bulk of disc three. Though a contemporary of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane; Harriott developed his own method of playing what he called “abstract” or free jazz. Unlike Coleman, he kept a pianist in his group, and unlike Coltrane he really stressed complex interaction and collective improvisation amongst all band members, particularly on the justly lauded album Free Form which is included in this collection. Finally, disc four covers some more quartet and quintet sessions that Harriott did after a period of scuffling and ill health that followed his poorly received but historically significant free jazz recordings. The music returns to the swinging hard-bop of the first couple of discs and shows Harriot playing with a sharper, tart tone reminiscent of Jackie McLean or Eric Dolphy. Left missing as the final breakthrough of his career, the Indo-Jazz fusion albums he co-led with John Mayer which were some of the first albums to wed Eastern classical music to Western jazz and were pioneering in their time. Still, this is a fine retrospective of an unjustly ignored figure in modern jazz. Joe Harriott Story -

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