Jazzland : 1961
JH, alto sax; Shake Keane, trumpet and flugelhorn; Pat Smythe, piano; Coleridge Goode, bass; Phil Seaman, drums.
Common reactions upon first hearing Joe Harriott – from an unscientific poll of friends:
1) “Is this Ornette?”
2) “This is from… when?”
3) “British? Really?”
4) “Given a blindfold test and provided with a time span equivalent to the age of the known universe, I wouldn’t think to cite Joe Harriott until after the last ember had faded from view.”
Hailed by The Wire as “the U.K.’s greatest jazz musician,” Joe Harriott is probably best known in this country for his Indo-Jazz fusion albums with John Mayer. Stirring stuff to be sure, but the bedrock of his achievement are the three trailblazing free jazz albums he recorded in the early sixties – Free Form, Abstract, Movement. This unjustly obscure body of work has been favorably compared to the best of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus from the same period. And if that sounds like impossible hype, there’s little doubt that Harriott’s work was every bit as innovative.
Sure these tracks sound more than a little like Ornette. But it’s not a question of copying or influence, but about the strange confluence of ideas that sometimes occurs across continents. Like the case of Alfred Wallace, who hit upon the idea of evolution at almost the exact same time as Charles Darwin, only half a world away. Of course, one doesn’t hear all that much from Wallace’s corner these days, do one.
Not that we should get too hung up on the similarities. History has a way of flattening our ears — just the other day we heard a Charlie Parker ringtone and could’ve sworn it was some Ornette off Shape of Jazz to Come! So check out this wonderful piece on Harriott from All About Jazz that delineates the many temperamental and compositional differences between him and Coleman, starting with the prominent fact that Harriott used a piano.
As for the tracks, they’re less highlights than what happened to hit us this moment. We’ve been listening to Free Form all week and hearing different highlights with every spin. The entire album is rock solid and we’ll definitely be featuring more tunes from it in the future. For now, enjoy the surging unison playing of “Straight Lines,” the fiery galloping push-pull of “Abstract,” and the buoyantly dense dance of “Calypso Sketches.”
Hopefully some intrepid label will reissue Free Form, Abstract, and Movement together in one convenient box and we’ll watch how quickly history rewrites itself. For now, you can get a refracted idea of Harriott’s glory through Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines, which pays tribute to the man whose music lurks ever more persistently in jazz’s shadows.