Jazz guitarist and Washington native Joel Harrison obviously has little use for "fake books," those handy compendiums of often-requested tunes. His quartet's performance at Blues Alley on Monday night was typically wide-ranging, embracing Southern string-band music, traditional spirituals and pop sounds. When was the last time someone in a jazz club asked to hear "Shady Grove" or "Galveston"?
Some far-better-known guitarists share Harrison's panoramic view of jazz. Bill Frisell has similar tastes (and electronic gadgets), and Harrison's imaginative arrangements reflect a debt to Pat Metheny's atmospheric take on Americana.
Still, none of the music performed Monday night sounded secondhand. That's partly because Harrison is a singer as well a guitarist. He used his voice sparingly but effectively to evoke rural music traditions and to help place Jimmy Webb's "Galveston" in an unexpected and haunting light. What also kept the music sounding fresh is the rapport Harrison has developed with saxophonist David Binney over the years. The unison lines they played on "Shady Grove" imbued the melody with a tart, fiddle-like tone, and the arrangements were laced with wide-open guitar and sax improvisations that complemented each other well. All the while bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Allison Miller negotiated numerous tricky shifts in tempo and dynamics.
Among the evening's highlights were tunes drawn from the guitarist's new George Harrison tribute CD, "Harrison on Harrison." Particularly enjoyable was a languid rendering of "Beware of Darkness."
-- Mike Joyce