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Joel Harrison, the renowned guitarist, is all set to take the stage at Zinc on Monday, July 31, accompanied by his accomplished band members: Gary Versace on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and EJ Strickland on drums. With a remarkable career spanning decades, Joel has fearlessly explored the realms of jazz, classical, Americana, and musical traditions from India and Africa. Hailing from Washington D.C., he began his search for new sounds in the early 1980s, immersing himself in musical experiences in Boston and the Bay Area. His artistic journey has been shaped by mentorships with luminaries like Joan Tower, Ali Akbar Khan, W.A. Mathieu, and Charlie Banacos, propelling him to become one of the most respected artists of his generation. 

At the core of Joel’s multifaceted projects lies an essence of heart, soul, and surprise, captivating audiences and forging deep connections with his compositions. As a two-time winner of the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Composition Competition and recipient of numerous prestigious awards and support, Joel’s contributions to the jazz world have been exceptional, leading him to release 17 CDs as a leader and earning him recognition in the esteemed “Rising Star” category of Downbeat Magazine’s poll. 

We recently sat down with Joel on the eve of his upcoming Zinc performance to discuss his recent and forthcoming projects, offering a glimpse into the boundless creativity that continues to inspire the jazz community worldwide.

Charles Carlini: Joel, your musical endeavors have been incredibly diverse, blending jazz, classical, Americana, and influences from India and Africa. Could you share with us some of your recent projects that exemplify this unique fusion of genres, and what sparked your interest in exploring such eclectic musical landscapes?

Joel Harrison: In general, each record I produce has a specific focus. A few years back, I had the privilege of collaborating with an Indian musician, the sarod player Anupam Shobhakar. Our joint project, Still Point-Turning World, became a unique blend of influences from his tradition, the jazz realm, and classical aspects with a percussion quartet. Its success, I believe, stemmed from the fact that it was a genuine collaboration, allowing us to meld our worlds seamlessly. The key to these collaborations lies in openness and curiosity. I’m always eager to learn something new, and that attitude helps me create music with its own identity, steering away from mere recreations of the past. Another example of this explorative approach is my records that combine country music with jazz. I wanted to expand the boundaries of the jazz repertoire and draw from my own background, having grown up with the rich Appalachian music tradition. Why not make it my own and add my unique touch?

CC: Your innovative approach to music and risk-taking as an artist are well-known. Can you tell us about a specific instance or project where you took a significant artistic risk, and how that experience influenced your growth as a musician?

JH: To be honest, most of my projects revolve around taking risks; otherwise, they wouldn’t pique my interest. Venturing into the unknown is a constant pursuit for me. Working with new material tailored to each project means I won’t know if it works until it’s completed! Among my most significant endeavors are my ventures into big band writing, my experiments with string quartets, and my collaborations with non-western cultures. Recording with Jack DeJohnette, who appears on my latest recording, was nerve-wracking and filled with risks. I had to consciously avoid thinking about all the legendary musicians he’s recorded with, so I could be true to myself. Jazz itself is synonymous with risk-taking. Every solo I take involves risk—sometimes it turns out great, and other times it doesn’t. But that’s the adventure. Embracing risk becomes an ally when you live in the moment, rather than an adversary.

CC: As a guitarist, composer, and lyricist, your creativity seems boundless. What has been the most personally rewarding recent project you’ve worked on, and what emotions or messages did you aim to convey through your music?

JH: Well, I must say, I’m always fond of the latest record! Currently, it’s Anthem of Unity. However, each project brings its own excitement and rewards, especially if I’ve managed to do my job right. Surprisingly, the most fulfilling ones are often the most impractical and seemingly impossible to pull off. Take, for instance, the big band record, America at War. It was an enormous undertaking, and I couldn’t believe how the musicians heroically mastered the difficult music with such ease. There were countless rewrites, but witnessing 18 people wail away on my compositions made all the effort gratifying, seeing their virtuosic and soulful performances in harmony.

I absolutely adore orchestration; it provides an endless playground for creativity. And one of the high points of my career was listening to Jack DeJohnette play my music on Anthem of Unity. There’s a good reason he’s collaborated with almost every great jazz artist of the past 50 years.

Ultimately, my goal in all my records is to move people. They don’t need to fully grasp the music intellectually; what matters most is touching their hearts and spirits, leaving them moved and inspired. Yet, I’ll admit, my eclectic approach might not be the wisest career move. People tend to want to pigeonhole you, which I’ve always found absurd. Each year brings unpredictability, as I never quite know what to expect of myself or my next project. Repetition doesn’t sit well with me; I prefer embracing the unknown. It’s both a blessing and a curse, I suppose. But honestly, it couldn’t be any other way.

CC: Collaboration is often at the heart of great music. Have you recently collaborated with any musicians or artists from diverse backgrounds, and how did these partnerships enhance your artistic vision and the project’s final outcome?

JH: As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, opening the box and collaborating with artists and instruments not traditionally associated with jazz allows for the creation of sounds that have never been heard before. For me, this embodies the true essence of the jazz tradition. The artists I look up to always push us to make the music new and fresh. By incorporating instruments like Shakuhachi, English horn, sarod, kanjira, and kaval, we ride the waves of the unknown and explore uncharted musical territories.

It’s fascinating to see how many people worldwide are embracing this approach and creating jazz music in their own unique ways. While some may start by emulating US artists, I always hope they eventually find their own distinct sound.

I’m particularly drawn to the concept of finding common ground with fellow musicians, regardless of their background or nationality. Anyone next to me with an instrument has the potential to become my co-creator, as long as we’re both willing to shed our egos and truly listen to one another. Admittedly, it’s easier said than done, but it holds immense potential for inspiring collaborations and groundbreaking musical experiences.

CC: Your upcoming performance at Zinc is highly anticipated. Can you give us a glimpse into what the audience can expect from this show? How will you incorporate elements from your recent projects into your live performance, and how important is the interaction with the audience in shaping the musical experience?

JH: In this show, my main focus is to showcase music from the new record, Anthem of Unity. The album is essentially a blowing session, featuring fairly simple yet inviting music that allows the players to explore and express themselves freely. As a result, the music tonight will exude a sense of playful freedom, combining elements of funk, swing, and memorable melodies.

Interestingly, this evening will offer a rare treat for my New York City audience, as we’ll also be playing a few jazz tunes. Normally, my performances in the city exclusively feature my original music. It’ll be an absolute blast to delve into a fantastic tune like Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” and infuse it with our own energy and style.

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Thank you, Joel, for sharing your insights and experiences with us. Your innovative approach to music and commitment to pushing the boundaries of genres continue to inspire music enthusiasts worldwide. We look forward to experiencing your upcoming performance at Zinc and witnessing the magic of your recent projects firsthand. Best of luck with all your future endeavors!

For more information about Joel Harrison, visit his website at https://joelharrison.com/. And make sure to save the date for his Zinc performance on Monday, July 31, where he will undoubtedly take you on a mesmerizing musical adventure! Click here to secure your tickets and be part of an unforgettable night of jazz fusion!

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