A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and Joel Harrison at a previous Alternative Guitar Summit. Photo by Scott Friedlander.

The guitarist and composer Joel Harrison has been producing, organizing and playing in the Alternative Guitar Summit since 2010. He also founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Lifeforce Arts Inc., in 2013 to commission works, stage performances and further music education (including a guitar summer camp, starting in 2017) related to the summit’s mission to share and celebrate experimental guitar approaches. This weekend marks the final day of this year’s festival and The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host two special events celebrating the full breadth of guitar playing today—an evening performance of first-time guitar duos, as well as a rare afternoon workshop with the legendary Bill Frisell.

We caught up with Joel to talk about the history of the summit, and what to listen for in these first-time duo performances.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been doing quite a few of these concerts, with a bunch of diverse guitarists, at all sorts of different venues (ShapeShifter Lab, (le) Poisson Rouge, National Sawdust, IBeam, and many others)—is it always in the summer?

Joel Harrison: This is our 8th year, and it’s a pretty wide-open concept focused on creating new creative spaces for guitarists who are doing something new and/or unique. It’s not always in the summer, but it’s usually three nights in a row (a mini-festival), and this year we are doing what we’re calling the “Bill Frisell Invitational” concert at LPR where he picked the band plus four guest guitarists and has sort of free reign to explore and open up this year. There’s also a Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown at Nublu with some of the best guitarists on the planet paying tribute to 70s-era fusion guitar; and last but not least these two events at The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: Can you speak about the idea of guitar duos, which have been a staple at many of the AGS concerts, including the one this Saturday night?

JH: Yeah I’ve always been a fan of guitar duos, and I’ve been trying to pair older players with younger ones, and the average age difference at this Jazz Gallery concert is actually somewhere around 25 years! I often try and steer the duos toward one jazz song and one free improvisation.

TJG: Can you tell us a little bit about each duo?

JH: Rez Abbasi & Jeff Miles
Rez has put out many great records which are interesting and complex, often incorporating Pakistani music. Jeff is a young player who has great technique and studied with Ben Monder.

Peter Bernstein & Gilad Hekselman
Peter is a legendary master of the jazz guitar tradition. Gilad loves Peter’s playing, learned a lot from him, and has a modern sound also steeped in the tradition; both are lyrical players and I’m excited to hear them play in this context.

Joe Morris & Matteo Liberatore
Joe is a leading voice in a more avant-garde tradition on the guitar and Elliot Sharp told me about Matteo—he’s a guitarist who’s been influenced by Joe Morris.

Joel Harrison & Anthony Pirog
When we play it’s freaky; we have the same thoughts at the same time. We’re both from DC and are way into that Danny Gatton guitar stuff… We’re both into a lot of other stuff too and our duet will reflect this eclectic language.

TJG: What are your thoughts on “the state of jazz guitar” today? Any new players that are inspiring you?

JH: I would say jazz guitar is in a fine state. There are a lot of young, talented players, more every day. Many of them seem to come from higher educational institutions than ever. Some get good very young, partly because of access to tremendous resources. I ask young people all the time who their favorite players are. Often they mention Julian Lage.

TJG: It feels to me that the festival and your music aims to go “beyond genre”—how do you arrive at that and what do you think about genres?

JH: I try to avoid genres. I pay attention to content. I have felt like this since I was young. I am personally attracted to players who seem to have welcomed many languages into their music and made it their own sound. With this summit, I try and give great players a platform and make them do something a little different than usual.

TJG: This show at the Gallery has both classic jazz and more Avant-garde, explorational sounds & players—some of your other presentations have also followed this thread. What are your thoughts on the NYC jazz scene in general? Is it vibrant? Inclusive? Difficult? Open? It seems organizations like your own are important to maintaining an open and embracing a healthy feeling in the Jazz scene—are there any others?

JH: A huge question! NYC, more than other places weirdly enough, can still be prone to “silos” of thinking. Sometimes it feels like one scene doesn’t much cross into another scene. I just happen to love many different ways of making music, and my programming shows that. I am indeed open and embracing and have played or at least touched upon just about every way of playing the guitar imaginable. So to me, a great show exemplifies all this. Just like Bill Graham programming Miles Davis with a San Francisco rock band and a Flamenco group in the late 60’s. Just like open form FM radio used to be. I can’t stand parochialism and people who say life and art has to be lived a certain way.

TJG: What’s this summer looking like for you, outside of the festival?

JH: I’m available for high paying, easy gigs. Ha—seriously. I have a new CD coming out in August or thereabouts on Highnote. A third edition of my Free Country group—jazz versions of country and Appalachian music.

The Alternative Guitar Summit and The Jazz Gallery present a workshop with Bill Frisell at 1:30 P.M. on Saturday, June 23, 2018. $60 general admission.

The workshop will be followed by a special concert: Across the Generations—First Time Duos at 8 P.M. at The Jazz Gallery. The featured duos are Rez Abbasi & Jeff Miles, Peter Bernstein & Gilad Hekselman, Joe Morris & Matteo Liberatore, and Joel Harrison & Anthony Pirog. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.