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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Jamaica Swing, Excerpt #2


The wave of Caribbean migration to the UK that began at the turn of the 1950s brought figures that would revolutionise every aspect of British life, and not least its culture and music.

One of the West Indian giants who would light up the post-war London jazz scene was Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, whose fiery playing and experiments with abstract improvisation and a fusion with Indian classical music made him one of the most radical and original of the voices then operating on the European circuit.

A Charlie Parker disciple obsessed by music and little else, Harriott's closest American parallel was probably the multi-woodwind player Eric Dolphy, who worked in non-avant-garde settings as well as with Charles Mingus - a Harriott admirer - Texan Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The alto man first recorded under his own name in 1954 - at a time when Coleman was still an elevator operator in Los Angeles.

Harriott thrived during the 1950s, cutting ballad and bebop, big band and the inevitable "with strings" sessions, was featured in concert with visiting American heavies, and involved himself in the burgeoning jazz and poetry movement.
Harriott's uncommon ability earned him a place in Ronnie Scott's short-lived big band in 1956, where he typically won the admiration of his fellow band members for his playing, but had some personality clashes when others saw him as arrogant. He was a person of tremendous self-confidence, and his manner could come across as rather dogmatic and aloof.

One famous recording date that suffered from this was a pairing with fellow Jamaican great, the trumpeter Dizzy Reece. Alfred Lion, who had championed Reece's cause in England and saw similar greatness in Harriott bought the two giants together in studio. The event proved an unmitigated disaster, owing to each man's strong sense of individuality and refusal to give ground in relation to their musical ideas. Harriott ended up storming out and was replaced by another West Indian, Sammy Walker.

Veteran actor, commentator and musicologist Charles Hyatt recalls Harriott as an enormously gifted if brash improviser and acknowledges his place among the Caribbean avant-garde of musicians who came to prominence in the UK and Continental Europe in the 1950s and 60s. Among them bassist Coleridge Goode (who in fact had been resident in Britain since the 1930s), trumpeters Shake Keane and Eddie Thornton (along with Reece), and reedmen Wilton Gaynair, Harold McNair and George Tyndale, to name but a few.

A bout of tuberculosis in1958 kept Harriott in hospital for six months. While there, he began to develop an approach to music that he christened "free form." Unbeknownst to him, Coleman had been developing his own brand of music along similar lines at about the same time, almost half the world away. The results of Harriott's experiments, Free Form and Abstract had the misfortune to be released in the United Kingdom and North America chronologically after Coleman's groundbreaking first LPs (on Atlantic Records) had already gained worldwide attention. Harriott insisted with veracity that he had been thinking about similar ways of improvising years before and his conception of the entire band playing free through broken time signatures and mood changes was far different then the Texan's. But the public imagination - particularly in the US -only had room for one bearded alto sax experimentalist.

In the mid 1960's Harriott began exploring the fusion of Indian music and jazz with the violinist John Mayer, to create some of the first experiments in 'world-music'. Here he pitted six jazzmen opposite four Indian musicians to weave a rich new synthesis of Indian music with modal and free jazz. The sextet broadened with the sounds of violin, sitar, tambura and tabla created a hypnotic backdrop for Joe's explorations on alto. Again Harriott met with critical acclaim, three albums, Indo-Jazz Fusions 1 and 2 and Indo-Jazz Suite, were all recorded in 1966 and are still prized by today's collectors. He also continued to be a popular attraction at European jazz festivals, appearing with the 10-piece band.

Despite critical acclaim Joe Harriott's music went largely ignored in his life and he was never able to live comfortably. Neither could he afford to keep regular working bands together. The characterisation of "temperamental and arrogant" would dog him for the balance of his life, and he had already succumbed to the various temptations (alcohol, gambling, womanising) common to the jazz scene of that time.
He spent his remaining years freelancing around the UK with pick up bands, sleeping on locals' couches and floors. Harriott's closing years were a sad reflection of those of Charlie Parker; dying a lonely and tragic death of cancer in 1973. He was 44.

Now, more than 30 years after his death, Harriott's importance is just beginning to be widely acknowledged. His pioneering free form and Indo-Jazz fusion albums have been re-released to new acclaim.
His name has been added to the Jamaican Jazz Hall of Fame. Trumpeter Keane led a Joe Harriott Memorial Quintet for a time and Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark recorded a tribute CD as the Joe Harriott Project. In 2003, the London Jazz festival dedicated an evening to his memory with performances from older and younger musicians alike.

He also became a cause célébre for Anglo-Jamaican Courtney Pine and his circle. The Jazz Warriors dedicated a tour to his memory and Pine seldom wasted a chance to name check him when interviewed. He is most recently the subject of a new retrospective by first-time biographer Alan Robertson.
A child of adversity, a man of tremendous confidence in his abilities, Joe Harriott was never wanting for a questing spirit when it came to making music. Because of this, the music still sounds as vital and challenging as it did some 50 years ago.


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