Jazz guitarist Joel Harrison came of age in 1960s and ’70s Washington, but he never saw it as a place to build a career as an adventurous, progressive musician. Everywhere he’s gone, however, he’s taken the sounds of the city with him.
“Growing up in that area allowed me access to a lot of different kinds of music,” says Harrison, 61, who’s now based in New York after stints in Boston and San Francisco. “Southern music traditions — old-time music, bluegrass, country — as well as jazz, R&B, funk and rock.”
All of those appear to some degree in Free Country, a project Harrison began in 2003 as a means of filtering country and bluegrass compositions through a cutting-edge jazz sound and sensibility. On his new album, “Angel Band: Free Country Vol. 3,” Harrison, on guitar and vocals, and his band take on such traditional bluegrass songs as “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Angel Band” as well as such country hits as Glen Campbell’s “The Wichita Lineman” and Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“It reflects a real, kind of wild array of my influences. Each cut is really kind of its own distinct sound world,” Harrison says. “I think in that era [when I grew up] — and perhaps it’s still true — Washington, being poised on the Mason-Dixon Line, was fertile ground to develop a concept like this.”
In particular, Harrison drew inspiration from Danny Gatton, a D.C. guitar hero who similarly fused the local musical currents. Harrison was a self-described worshiper of Gatton, going to countless performances. “He was free country,” Harrison says. “He’d play a tune, and all of those influences I mentioned, and more, might show up.”
Since Harrison released the first two Free Country albums, he has produced 14 other albums, from psychedelia-tinged fusion to rootsy Americana to string-laden arrangements of compositions by the late jazz drummer Paul Motian. The Free Country releases, though, have been his most successful, and established his reputation.
Harrison is also a composer. His work, rooted in progressive jazz but exploring multiple genres, is often through-composed and highly complex. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010 to compose and record an eight-movement piece combining classical percussion, Indian percussion, improvisation and jazz, which he’s now finishing up. The tunes he plays with Free Country are simpler, based on conventions of folk and pop music — which, for Harrison, is a large part of their appeal.
“This music that I’m covering is timeless, and I find endless currency in its timeless simplicity,” he says. “My goal is to maintain the soul of the compositions and also add a modern context and a modern language to it.”
As if to seal its connection to his formative years in the nation’s capital, Harrison begins “Angel Band” with an instrumental “America the Beautiful.”
Rhizome, 6950 Maple St. NW. rhizomedc.org.
Date: Saturday at 8 and 9:30 p.m.