Jamaica-born alto saxist Joe Harriott was one of the UK scene’s most original, inventive and under-appreciated jazzmen of the late-‘50s and ‘60s. Although he died almost penniless in 1973 at the age of just 44, his work is now being reappraised and he’s being cited as a major influence on today’s younger players.
Young UK jazz star Soweto Kinch played a 2001 tribute gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and also wrote an indepth Guardian profile about Harriott. And then there’s Proper Music’s The Joe Harriott Story, a four-CD box set featuring the best of his recorded output including a recently unearthed final recording.
And how arresting and contemporary much of this stuff sounds today. The four CDs map out Harriott’s development from bebop virtuoso to a gamechanger who gave Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman a run for their money. It also features some of his collaborators in stellar form, including legendary Brit drummer Phil Seamen who tears up the scorching ‘Just Goofin’. There‘s a great early take on Horace Silver’s ‘Senor Blues’, a groovy Afro-Cuban-tinged ‘Caravan’ and a very swinging ‘Jumpin’ With Joe’ featuring a fine bass’n’scat solo from Bobby Orr. According to the liner notes, many contemporary jazz musicians reported being ‘jealous’ of this band. It’s easy to hear why.
But it’s the later freeform material that really grabs the attention. Hospitalised in 1958 with pneumonia, Harriott formulated a new musical direction which would see him evade the structures of modern jazz. Immersing himself in musical theory, he saw a way forward that relied less on harmony and more on rhythm and melody. The resulting music still thrills today with its sense of humour and melodic abandon – check out ‘Formation’ and ‘Coda’ particularly for dramatic evidence of this.
Also available is Alan Robertson‘s ‘Fire In His Soul‘ biography which painstakingly outlines Harriott’s life and career, giving a rounded, highly-readable portrait of a proud and complex individual. And if all that isn’t enough, Proper also put together a fine podcast featuring music-radio legend Trevor Dann speaking to Robertson about Harriott’s life and music.