Joel Harrison on his curatorial approach for the 2012 Alternative Guitar Summit

Joel Harrison on his curatorial approach for the 2012 Alternative Guitar Summit

In 2011 I curated three nights at Cornelia St. Café that I dubbed the “Alternative Guitar Festival.” David Spelman, founder of the NYGF, attended two of those nights and was sufficiently enthused to invite me to organize a similar gathering for his festival this year.

 My goal as a curator is to present master improvisers, free-thinkers, those who reject category and style and are radically imaginative. Ideally they are under-appreciated and  have not won any polls. I wish to present these players in unusual contexts, outside of their normal trio or quartet settings. 

 I have tried to mix generations and approaches. Take, for example, Vic Juris. Vic is one of the most criminally under-rated players alive. He may be best known for his mastery of straight ahead jazz; however, knowing how deep his bag of tricks is, I wanted to pair him up with someone who might bring a whole other side to bear. Last year he requested Mary Halvorsen as his duo partner, and voila, a wild match was made! Mary is a fresh voice on the scene, given to strange, unpredictable, lyrical eruptions of Braxton-like trajectory. Vic is twice her age, but close your eyes and you’ll never know it! It’s a wonderful, quirky union, alternative all the way.

 The guitar these days is a kind of magic wand, a poly-theistic blow torch, lovely, raging, gentle, noisy, intimate, voluminous, hallucinogenic, funky, juvenile, ageless. More than any instrument of our time it seems capable of anything, home to the transcendent and the wretched. In the hands of masters, and there are many at this festival, it is a wonder to behold. Take Nels Cline. When I met Nels in 1975 it was clear to me that he could, and would, do anything with the guitar. Back then we played acoustic duets in the thrall of Matchbook, My Goals Beyond, and the Koln Concert. Nels went on to turn the electric guitar into a one-man orchestra, giving whole new meaning to the phrase “effects-box.” Nels and his boxes are a hydra-headed organism given to unholy, volcanic screams, and then tender, haunting melody. Talk about alternative. Here is a guy who once yelled at me because I suggested we perform a jazz standard. NO JAZZ STANDARDS he cried! And yet, he loves jazz, and is rich in the jazz lineage. I consider myself very lucky that his duo partner is the illustrious Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Fearless experimenters both.

 The word eclectic has been beaten half to death. But it applies here. Some participants are jazz-based, some not. Some will play songs (the great Ben Monder will premiere a new project of all Jimmy Webb tunes) while others will create electronic soundscapes, like Knox Chandler, best known for his decades long work with rock groups like the Psychedelic Furs, Natalie Merchant, and then Hal Wilner. Mark Stewart can’t be pinned down. He plays avant-garde classical music with the Bang On A Can Allstars AND is Musical Director for Paul Simon. His duo with the nylon -string- wielding Gyan Riley (Terry Riley’s progeny) should be an eye-opener. Dave Tronzo, slide-master and all-around eccentric, pairs with the ever-whacky Jay Granelli, and then from a completely different perspective comes Liberty Ellman with Vijay Iyer, both masters of rhythm, ellipitical odd-times, left of center funk.

 I’m going to play mostly slide on a  National Steel with an amazing Indian classical sarode player, Anupam Shobhakar. The combination of his fretless instrument and my slide is fascinating to me, and when I say Anupam is a master and virtuoso of his tradition I am, trust me, not being hyperbolic.

 Night three will be special. All jazz guitarists are indebted to Jim Hall. Growing up, before the “Big Three” entered the picture (Metheny, Scofield, Frisell), there were two poles of consciousness, connected yet oblique- Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. You had to study both to get anywhere. Jim is one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time. He was one of the first to approach the instrument like it was a keyboard. People like Jimmy Guiffre, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Bob Brookmeyer chose to collaborate with him, often sans rhythm section, because of his ability to play orchestrally. His trio records are essays in imagination, voice-leading, and economy.  Jim’s seemingly effortless poetry on the instrument belies the enormous amount of information he brings to bear.

 But there is more to Jim Hall than the guitar. It has always seemed to me that Jim was foremost a composer, whether he wrote the tune he was playing or not. His ability to reconstruct any tune, and make it new every time, is amazing. He is a voyager, experimenting, tinkering. His huge body of work includes some of the best music of our time, whether the 3rd Stream recordings with Ornette and Gunther Schuller, the incomparable Jimmy Guiffre Three, or his late 90’s effort with strings on the Telarc label.

 It was important to me to not just have guitar players in this tribute, so I invited several folks who have played with Jim, and are similarly inclined to push boundaries: David Binney, Scott Colley, and Chris Potter. But plenty of wonderful guitarists will be there too, from relative youngster Gilad Hekselman to the ubiquitous, poetic Steve Cardenas.  Anthony Wilson makes a rare appearance from L.A.. Vic Juris  will do a tune from the infamous Hall/ Evans duo record, while Cline returns with a piece he wrote dedicated to Jim. I will add my “String Choir” which just recorded a cd of Paul Motian’s music. I’ll arrange Jim’s tune “Subsequently.” All the participants have been asked to either play a tune of Jim’s, a standard associated with him, a free improv, or composition in his spirit.

 I can’t wait to see what happens.

 Joel Harrison



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