At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.
The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.
The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.
My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.
The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.
Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.
Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.
Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.
The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.