Let me start out by saying you don't sit back in your chair and listen to The Wheel, the latest by composer and guitarist Joel Harrison, you are swept up by it! This work is a five movement suite for two quartets and guitar. The compositions combine the subtle and complex emotions of a string quartet with the raw energy of a jazz quartet and feature the delicate and sometimes not-so-delicate presence of Harrison's guitar. A masterful work of composition in which the visual and emotional canvass of classical music is merged effectively with the palette of color that jazz phasing and tonal variety can impart. The result is a steady flow of environment in which the listener is swept up and carried away, sometimes on the gentlest of breezes and at other times as if on the edge of a tornado. While on this journey your mind cannot sit still, the music evokes scenes from broad landscapes, over fields, great oceans, rooftops, and forests. You find yourself reaching down to grab something to hold on to, and just when the thrill of flying has overwhelmed you, Harrison lands you in the gentlest of pastures and surrounds you with the warmth of the sun.
The title The Wheel, is a foreboding of the movements that are coming, but the rate of acceleration and deceleration that one experiences during these movements makes you sure that the wheel comes off the ground more than once. The first movement, "American Farewell" is built on a four bar melody which is made familiar to the listener in the opening section in which the lamenting nature of the melody is dropped on you in the first interval, a minor 3rd that Harrison uses again in the last movement. But the emotional landscape covered by this movement is what excites me about this piece and the CD in general. There is a movie running in your head and the soundtrack is made up of these movements. During this movie you are given a grand tour of jazz. The trumpet solo in the second movement "Blues Circle" is a case in point. Ralph Alessi treats the composition exquisitely and brings to the piece a transitional stability that any hardcore jazz fan can appreciate. This followed by the strings plucking technique again lends itself to the transcendental nature of the entire CD. You close out feeling a folk music that is the roots of blues and jazz from some faraway world, very organic.
The third movement, "Rising", is a melodic romp that has some intriguing intervals. These create a sense of anxiety and movement that has you looking over your shoulder like the villain in an action movie. I found this composition to be the epitome of the merger of strings and horns as a means to communicate the theme that Harrison is trying to convey. It is fast, focused and forceful. The sax solo is welcomed as a reprieve from all the motion that the piece conveys. But you are not set still, not by any stretch! Movement continues to be the key word here.
In listening to the fourth movement, "We Have Been the Victims of a Broken Promise", you start to get some sense of the emotion that is the source of Harrison's compositions. As the liner notes allude to, a sense of loss is conveyed in the piece. Some reflection, some inward time is called for. The title is a line taken from a Martin Luther King essay that Harrison was reading at the time, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and provides the canvass for this piece. The scene you will create will depend on your experience and ability to resonate with the title itself. But the music will be an effective sound track for your thoughts. Haunting, sad and yet beautiful, like memories of a passed friend. This is my favorite piece, just for the listening pleasure it brings. The gentle brush with Harrison's chords in the middle of this song convey to me that notion that while he is an accomplished guitarist, he is all about the other eight musicians expressing the music. They are not sidemen to a leader, but a deeply invested group of collaborators.
The final movement, "Ceaseless Motion (Watch the Future Roll By)", is Harrison's last attempt at disturbing your physical presence. The sense of urgency, the notion of time going by, movement being frozen while the scenes rush by you and you are helpless to slow it down, pervades this piece. You never catch up to the changing scenery of the composition. This far into the CD you thought you were conditioned to anticipate shifts and movements but this fifth and final piece uses changes to throw you off. I loved it, it was pure excitement, what Classical and Jazz music should be, a disruption of your comfort with the situation at hand. The complexity of the counterpoint and driving beat of the rhythm section accentuated about four minutes in is what this entire piece is all about. The strings at that point are tearing at your center, demanding that you feel the motion, feel the rush, and feel The Wheel as it turns ever faster, moving you along or leaving you behind.
As new music goes, this is the most refreshing Jazz I have heard in years. It is explosive, emotional, technical and playful. It is a true listening experience. Harrison's compositions are alive, graphic and intensely colorful. This disc warrants listening to. Once you do, you will go back and listen again, because you will feel sure that you missed something in all that movement.