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At the helm of an 18-piece band, guitarist and composer Joel Harrison crafts a personal and powerful plea for peace on his thematic nine-song release, America at War (Sunnyside). The 62-year-old New York native begins the album with “March on Washington,” conjuring the excitement as well as the threat of violence toward civil rights protesters advancing on the nation’s capital with acid-etched guitar lines and the menacing bottom notes of tubaist Ben Staap. Songs also tackle the wrongheaded justification for the invasion of Iraq (“Yellowcake”), the ongoing tragedy for both American troops and the civilian populations in the Middle East (“The Vultures of Afghanistan”) and the aftermath of nuclear destruction (“My Father in Nagasaki”), the last of which was inspired by Harrison’s father’s experiences as one of the first American soldiers to view up close the devastation of the Japanese city.
Harrison’s writing and arranging for the big band underlines his sentiments, driving home his point of view through the colors and textures of an ensemble featuring top players such as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen; trombonists Alan Ferber and Curtis Hasselbring; and saxophonists Stacy Dillard, Jon Irabagon and Lisa Parrot. Bassist Gregg August and drummer Jared Schong are the versatile rhythm team throughout, and Wilson Torres provides a variety of percussive touches on vibraphone, congas, bongos and bells. Harrison’s sonic — and editorial — voice remains a constant, whether he’s expressing the plight of a homesick soldier (a heartfelt cover of Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow,” featuring the guitarist on vocals) or decrying the country’s failure to meaningfully deal with substance abuse (“Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars”). The musical cycle doesn’t address what Harrison refers to in the liners as the current “struggle for the soul of our nation,” but he hints that he may tackle it in the future.