It may have required getting 19 musicians on the payroll, but Joel Harrison has recorded a masterpiece.
One of the many great things about Joel Harrison is that he isn't a slave to his instrument. Many a guitar player will write music the way a guitar player would, regardless of the genre. And can you blame them? Old habits are hard to break. Which is why it's so nice to see any particular guitarist buckle down and use a little elbow grease to write music in a manner that doesn't easily befit the six-string (or however many strings are involved). And as the Joel Harrison Seven abruptly gives way to the Joel Harrison 19, the man's music still hasn't fallen into any guitar-centric traps. But if you heard Harrison's previous album Search or had a chance to catch the Joel Harrison Seven within the past two years or so, you'll know that his brand of jazz vibrates on a different wavelength. Even in a sea filled with many unique contemporaries, he's still an original. One reason is because his songs are just flat-out good -- memorable, never unnecessarily aloof. The other is because he's always got tremendous talent right alongside him.
Infinite Possibility is Harrison's first foray into big band writing, and the 19-piece ensemble he rounded up for the studio is one serious roster; Ben Kono, Ned Rothenberg, Ben Wendel, Taylor Haskins, Curtis Fowlkes, Kermit Driscoll, so many musicians that already have a bulky solo career to call their own. And Infinite Possibility may be full of Harrison's songs, but it's the orchestra's show. There are solos here and there, with the soloists receiving proper credit in the liner notes, but this is not big band music that is solo driven. Even Harrison himself practices a great deal of restraint, saving himself up for big moments like a showdown between him and his horns on "Dockery Farms". It's a stormcloud moving as one.
There is a mysterious feeling of "where is this going?" to the music, sharing more in common with Gil Evans's arrangements on those legendary Miles Davis albums than stuff from the swing era. In fact, calling it big band is pretty misleading (I only use the term because Harrison refers to it as such in the liner notes). On the surface, the first half of "Remember" is more contemporary classical than jazzy. Conductor J.C. Sanford has waived the baton for the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra, so he's hardly out of his element in this jazz-meets-classical-meets-steroids project. The presence of James Shipp on the vibraphone has the remarkable ability to set the tone for the opener "As We Gather All Around Her", one that also sets the tone for the whole album; a subtle sense of possibility, peeling back the layers in a manner not unlike the hand pulling back the curtain on the album's cover. Everett Bradley's soft singing voice sits in the mix so comfortably that he might as well be another horn. By the time Liali Biali gets a turn at the vocal mic in "Remember", she might as well be a theremin.
Infinite Possibility can't come more recommended. The songs flow, the music re-energizes itself with every bar and no one is a sound-hog. When listening to Infinite Possibility, I found myself forgetting time and again that I was listening to a 19-piece orchestra play music composed by a jazz guitarist. Harrison and his compatriots can knock over the jazzical boundaries of their instruments so well that it's downright comforting. It shows us that there is so much more that can be done in this vein, from now to whenever we feel like it.