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More than most of his peers, guitarist Joel Harrison, 62, has refused to be hemmed in by the strictures of conventional jazz. His 21 albums as a leader include unique mutations of Appalachian music, interpretations of George Harrison songs, collections of self-penned Americana-styled tunes that he sings in a crusty croak, and other uncategorizable projects that suggest he doesn’t relish being defined primarily as a jazz guitarist.
Still Point: Turning World continues this theme, with Harrison’s chosen reference point being Indian music, loosely defined. The album, albeit adventurous, delivers mixed results. In another outing that features unique instrumentation, Harrison is joined by saxophonist Ben Wendel, who also adds bassoon; Dan Weiss on drums and tabla; two revolving acoustic bassists, Hans Glawischnig and Stephan Crump; and the experimental Talujon Percussion Quartet. The featured player here is Anupam Shobhakar, a native of India, now living in New York, on sarode, a fretless cousin of the sitar.
The album begins in beguiling fashion with the first of eight “movements.” The nearly 10-minute “Raindrops in Uncommon Times” unfolds gracefully and accents its South Asian elements with tabla, choppy marimba partsand a section where Shobhakar trades slurry, slithery solos with Harrison’s amped-up guitar. “One Is Really Many” continues the momentum, with a more pronounced jazz feel and a finely wrought melody that builds to a stirring climax.
The album strays from this thread as it unfolds, the melodies getting busier and busier, the arrangements becoming denser and less focused — although “Mvt. 5: Ballad of Blue Mountain” evinces a stately elegance. Harrison seems to prefer integrating his guitar work into the overall musical concept rather than showcasing it. He scarcely solos outright, more inclined to provide washes of color beneath Shobhakar’s sarode excursions.
Still Point: Turning World deserves credit for ambition and for its precise ensemble playing. But, in attempting to squeeze so many musical elements together, Harrison fails to corral them into a cohesive statement. —Eric Snider
Featured photo by Scott Friedlander.