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Guitarist Joel Harrison Takes a Plunge into Gorgeous Indian Sounds

Guitarist Joel Harrison’s innovative, frequently vast compositions span many different styles of jazz and new classical music. He gravitates toward slower tempos and epic grandeur, both of which are in full effect on his latest album, Still Point: Turning World, featuring the Talujon Percussion Quartet. What’s most exciting about this colorful, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes exhilarating record – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it’s Indian music played with jazz instrumentation. It’s in the same vein as the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s reinventions of centuries-old Indian raga themes. Harrison and Talujon are at Roulette on Nov 6 at 8 PM; advance tix, available at the venue, are $18/

Harrison takes the title from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a reference to a mystical place of transcendence – or simply life. On the first number, Raindrops in Uncommon Time, the Indian sounds don’t kick in until about a third of the way through. The first part is a circling blend of acoustic guitar and vibraphone akin to a Malian kora melody. Then sarod player Anupam Shobhakar takes centerstage over the loopy vibes, tabla, and Harrison’s alternately resonant and jagged electric guitar. Ben Wendel’s sax joins the party: everybody plays the melody, and after a wry bit of rhythmic takadimi vocalizing, the group dance through a cheery crescendo that finally comes full circle. All this in about nine minutes.

One Is Really Many has Shobhakar running variations on what sounds like a classic Paul McCartney riff, then after a crescendo with the whole group going full steam, the song’s inner raga comes front and center, sarod scampering over spare, resonant accents from the rest of the crew. Wendel takes it out with a determined coda.

Harrison’s terse, distorted leads come to the forefront in Permanent Impermanence, which drummer Dan Weiss takes doublespeed out of a subtly syncopated stroll: once again, the raga comes into clear focus at that point, sax and eventually the vibes soloing over Harrison’s skronky chords. The considerably calmer Wind Over Eagle Lake 1 has playful ripples against stately gongs and bells

Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone riffs introduce Ballad of Blue Mountain, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, the sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.

Time Present Time Past has catchy hints of mid-70s Stevie Wonder within a catchy raga theme, the band slowing to halfspeed and then joyously back, ending on unexpectedly hazy note. The album’s centerpiece, Creator Destroyer has Shobhakar’s most adrenalizing volleys of notes within its  crescendoing intensity: it’s the most percussion-centric number here. The final cut is Blue Mountain (A Slight Return), a fond pastoral ballad and variations over a bustling, tabla-driven clave groove, the sarod fueling a series of rapidfire crescendos. The band trade animated riffs on the way out, as firmly in the jazz tradition as the raga pantheon.

Epically Tuneful, Colorfully Cinematic Jazz from Linda May Han Oh and Her Killer Band at the Vanguard This Week

There was a point about midway through the first song of of bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first set last night at the Vanguard where tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel broke into a wide-mouthed grin, staring to his left. At that moment, guitarist Matt Stevens was perusing a gritty, spacious solo punctuated by several judicious pauses. What was he doing between phrases that had goosed Wendel so hard?

As it turned out, it was drummer Obed Calvaire’s long, leapfrogging, crescendoing polyrhythms that had grabbed him – and soon, pretty much everybody else within earshot. There were innumerable other “this is why we love jazz” moments throughout the night. She’s back there tonight, July 3 through 7, with sets at 8:30 and a little after 10; cover is $35 and worth it.

Oh has made waves in the past couple of years as sidewoman to the stars, but her own work is often her best, and this show was characteristic. When a band is having fun, that translates to the audience. Oh gives her crew – which also included her significant other, pianist Fabian Almazan, the not-so-secret weapon in this quintet – plenty to sink their teeth into. Like the best film and classical composers, she starts with the simplest materials – sometimes just a single-note rhythm – and subtly introduces variations that often go in completely unanticipated directions.

The most vivid showstopper of the night was a piece from a forthcoming film, portraying the moment when a young Brazilian woman is kidnapped into the sex trade. Oh’s wistful, insistent opening solo became considerably more plaintive the second time around, Almazan’s glittering chords elevated the constantly shifting ground to majestic heights, and the tropical milieu quickly took a backseat to a fond goodbye to happiness. As Oh saw it, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

The group opened with Blue Over Gold, a Rothko shout-out that built from a warily insistent, percussive bass phrase to a recurrent four-chord cluster punctuated by Wendel’s hardbop and finally Calvaire’s rumbling attack. Yoda, which Oh dedicated to her mentor of a sister (“She’s a lot prettier,” the composer grinned) began with even more tightly wound, syncopated, minimalist bass and rose to punchy heights on the waves of Almazan’s piano.

While she played most of the set on her usual upright model, Oh also pulled a beautiful, full tone from her Fender on a couple of numbers, especially when playing chords. It was a welcome change from the legions of slap-happy funkpapa cliche-heads playing Weather Report covers and such a few blocks south on Bleecker. It was also rewarding to see how much more she’s singing: her soaring vocalese compares with another rising star string player, guitarist Camila Meza.

The night’s funniest tune was Speech Impediment, a winsomely persistent portrait of a stuttering dude who nonetheless finds a way to get the girl. Wendel got the funniest arrythmic bits, but both the bandleader and Calvaire were close behind, with a deadpan wit that brought to mind the Dutch clown prince of jazz, Misha Mengelberg. They returned to close the set on a more acerbically kinetic note. Oh has grown significantly as a writer over the past few years, to become one of the most consistently interesting bassist-composers around; you should see her.