Joel Harrison Quartet get cooking at Pizza Express

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The advance billing might have suggested a Joel Harrison solo set with some backing, but what we got instead on this Tuesday at Pizza Express was truly a band, one that gelled marvellously. There was nothing undercooked about this performance. These fellows have played together before and it shows. Aspects of the quartet that sprang to mind were: Communication! Dynamics! Heat! Choral!

The overarching soundscape across the various tunes was a very pleasant choral effect overlaying a locked-in groove, the consequence of band mates deeply in tune with one another. The singing quality of the music was especially the product of the artfully interwoven lines of Ben Wendel on sax and of course Harrison on electric guitar. This is not to gainsay the contributions of Michael Bates on bass and Jeremy Clemons on drums. Clemons’ is a big extrovert personality, intriguingly one with a proclivity for Jarrett-esque vocalising during more intense moments, but one with quite a gentle way with the kit. If you shut your eyes during the performance to better concentrate on the sounds, a surprising array of different percussion effects could be heard to decorate the authentic jazz/funk rhythms. Bates contributed in full measure to the rhythmic momentum of the show, staying tight to the groove by remaining loose in demeanour, maintaining time by jiving to the beat. And kudos to the sound engineer, who got the instrumental balance spot on.

‘Beat music’ is a term that has fallen out of usage, but this show certainly fit that description. Nobody was overly precious about their approach to their instrument. At times the early Allman Bros influence Joel Harrison cites in his Search album could be detected in his playing, all part of the brew that has led to his gaining recognition from US jazz critics as a rising star of jazz guitar.

Guitar chords are often emphasised, and pop out of the mix. The title ‘You Must Go Through A Winter’, drew a chuckle from the crowd, and was one of the standouts overall, with heightened communication between different band members during improvised passages, coupled to short staccato flurries of notes wrested from his guitar.  

A particular delight was the extensive use Ben Wendel made of the bassoon. This was not a mere novelty instrument, picked up briefly for effect and then discarded, but one used effectively in several contexts, so much so that it prompted you to wonder why it’s not deployed more extensively in jazz.

Harrison is a noted composer, and many tunes were his own, such as a sung, almost folksy rendition of ‘Some Thoughts on Kenny Kirkland’, but he did also toss in a couple of Paul Motian ideas, including the encore ‘Johnny Broken Wing’. There was entertainment in spades with a highly recognisable take on the Blood Sweat and Tears hit ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’. Like much of the best jazz, this music achieved a deft balance between the intellectually stimulating and the entertaining.  

– Graham Boyd