TEXT AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
It says Vermont “Jazz” Center, right up there on the sign above the stage, but guitarist Joel Harrison refuses to be shoe-horned. Over the course of an evening, he plays songs by Jimmy Webb, Al Cooper, Luther Vandross, Herbie Hancock and his own damned self, venturing into rock, blues, jazz, Latin-jazz and swing, without regard for genre conventions.
Harrison, out of New York City, is finishing up a tour in support of his latest album, Mother Stump, which revisits his rock roots through a series of covers. His bass player from the album, Michael Bates, has made the trip to Vermont with him, but his keyboardist Glenn Patscha and drummer Jeremy Clemons have not.
Not to worry, this part of New England is full of musicians. Tom Major, a Massachusetts-based percussionist who has played with South Side Johnny and the Jukes, Blood Sweat and Tears, Carly Simon, Chuck Berry and, for six years, Bo Diddley, sits in on kit. (He and Harrison once played in a reggae band together.) Vermont Jazz Center mainstay Eugene Uman takes a turn at the piano. And, for one closing number, long-time friends Harrison and Julian Gerstin, whose sextet opens the program, join together for Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” There’s a loose, warm, welcoming feel to the evening, as musicians connect and well-wishers listen appreciatively. It’s a low-key performance, but a good one.
Julian Gerstin, who arranged the whole event, starts out the night with his Latin-flavored sextet, bringing together pianist Uman, two saxophonists (Jon Weeks and Jake Whitsell), Wes Brown on bass, Doug Raneri on drum kit and himself on an unusual hand drum called a tanbou, which hails from Martinique and looks like a conga tipped onto its side. Gerstin explains that he studied tanbou and the music of Martinique, and you can hear an island-ish syncopation in many of the tunes he and his band play this evening. There’s a piece called “Zocalo a Media Noche” that borrows some chord changes from Thelonius Monk, and a breezy, Afro-Cuban lilting “The One Who makes You Happy.” This being Brattleboro, things get topical (and lefty) with the intro to “The Return of Jim Crow,” where Gerstin calls out Alito, Scalia and Thomas, but for all that, it’s a hedonistic set that swings and sways and showcases each of its musicians in turn.
Then it’s Joel Harrison’s turn, settling into a groove, that sidles in on growling bass, then pulls up short, drums pattering out a taut, three-based rhythm on the high hat. Over this Harrison strings out the long, bent sustained notes that howl like a blues singer. His guitar sounds a lot like a human voice, here and later in the program. The opener is one of the few that Harrison doesn’t announce, but I’m pretty sure it’s “Do You Remember Big Mama Thornton?” from the Mother Stump album. During a quick break between songs, Harrison introduces his ‘back to rock” orientation and gives a nod to the players who inspired him: Jeff Beck and Danny Gatton (and given the “slight return” reference on his album, most likely Jimi Hendrix as well).
Harrison switches to an introspective mode for the next piece, a cover of “Wichita Lineman” which he recorded on the 2005 album So Long 2nd Street. It’s a beautiful song, and Harrison and his band make it sing, the guitar carving out the melody while Bates executes complicated sotto voce fills on his stand-up bass. Bates gets a solo late in the piece, moving at blur speed over the fat strings, plucking out a soft, furry, urgency in the low notes.
From there, we head deeper into the blues, with a cover of Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” The song was made famous by the blues singer Donny Hathaway, and again, Harrison wields his guitar like another voice, putting the scratch and moan and howl into the melody, very much like Hathaway did. Bates, on bass, again serves as a visceral counterpart, his slow fills nodding mournfully at the anguish Harrison has just conveyed. The two work in easy partnership, ruminating on each other’s lines and responding in kind.
The next piece, “Refuge,” requires a pianist, so Eugene Uman steps up to the stage again, for its cool, slow atmospherics. Then it’s back to the covers for Luther Vandross’ “Dance with My Father Again.” Unusually, the bass carries the melody for a long time, all by itself, the guitar joining, eventually, in a pristine unison. And then the two of them are back to their conversation, the guitar line calling out, the bass muttering a replay. It is quite a lovely song.
“You Must Go Through a Winter,” from 2009’s Urban Myths drives harder and faster, with a big thump in the bass and lots of kick drum in its syncopated rhythm, and then it’s all hands on deck for Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” with Uman standing in for Herbie and Julian Gerstin locked in a long percussive duel with Major towards the end, the two trading beats from kit to tanbou and back again. It’s a Latin-rhythmed outing, completely different from all else on Harrison’s program (though congruent with Gerstin’s), but warmly and totally enjoyed by all players. What’s a little genre crossing among friends?