Joel Harrison

The Wheel

Innova 220



The Wheel

A five movement suite for double quartet and guitar


01        AmericanFarewell 6:04

02        BluesCircle 6:59

03        Rising9:37

04        WeHave Been the Victims of a Broken Promise 7:44

05        CeaselessMotion
    (Watch the future Roll By) 7:31


06  In Memoriam: Dana Brayton 8:08


Joel Harrison: Composer, Guitarist

Todd Reynolds: Violin

Chris Howes: Violin

Caleb Burhans: Viola

Wendy Sutter: Cello

David Binney: Alto saxophone

Ralph Alessi: Trumpet/ Flugelhorn

Lindsey Horner: Bass

Dan Weiss: Drums



The impulse for thisproject came from a longstanding determination to make music that equallyrepresents improvisation and notation.


When Jazz gets tiresome (too much soloing andpredictable textures and form), and classical music gets stodgy and monolithic,I dream up pieces that try to incorporate my favorite aspects of both. One ofthe reasons we love Duke Ellington is that he found a way to make jazz that hada huge amount of written material to back up and enhance the improvising. It’sa difficult task - the writing can overwhelm the joy of spontaneity, andconversely the solos can sound tacked on and useless. Furthermore, it is veryhard to find players who are skilled enough or even willing, to straddle bothworlds. Only 20 years ago this piece would have been practically inconceivable.It is only relatively recently, for instance, that classically trained stringplayers have developed a capacity to improvise and “rock out.” Particularchallenges involve the balance of the instruments, blending the drums with thestrings, and creating lines that sit well on both the horns and the strings.


Two classic ensembles, then,from their respective worlds - string quartet and jazz quintet. Rather thanwriting jazz music and then pasting on the strings, like icing on a cake, Idecided to start by writing string quartet music with Appalachian, African, andmodern classical sensibilities. The improvisation stems from a bedrock ofnotation, and comes in a variety of forms, from more typical solos overchanges, to duo improvising, to free ensemble ‘blowing.” Hopefully there areseamless transitions between the soul and spontaneity of improvising and thestructure of written notes, resulting in a kind of music that truly IS bothworlds, and does not just borrow from them.


Movement One: American Farewell

Sittingin a composer residency near the Blue Ridge Mountains a simple 4 bar melodykept nagging me. It seemed like a lament, a farewell song. It shows up in thebeginning and throughout the piece; its first interval, a minor 3rd, becomesthe fulcrum for the last movement. A lot of energy is generated by the bowingtechniques found in Appalachian string bands. This movement seems poisedbetween an elegy and a barfight, with the yearning of the opening giving way tobuzzing, chattering rhythms. There’s a story line that I think is apparent, anddoes not have anything like a conclusive denouement.


Movement Two: Blues Circle

Africanmusic and the Blues have played a huge role in my life. The string music of,say, Ghana, is quite profound rhythmically. I tried to capture the circularfeeling of that music, with a 5 beat pattern, and contrast it with a sectionthat explodes into double time. The melody is very vocal, and reminds me of thetype of grave testifying that Coltrane exemplified in pieces like “Alabama”.


Movement Three: Rising

Herewe leave behind some of the more inward looking material and really cutloose.  This section reminds me ofMessiaen and Weather Report with long, irregular unison lines that keepreaching higher and higher finally erupting into a jiggy vamp. The harmony usesa lot of 2nds, 4ths and 5ths, and major chords with a raised 5th. Itis ridiculously hard to play.


Movement Four: We Have Been the Victims of a Broken Promise

Thissimple, open-hearted melody is the opposite of some of the more dense material.When I was working on it I heard that my father’s oldest friend had died,Michael Straight, someone I’d known my whole life. He helped start AmnestyInternational, served on the National Endowment for the Arts, and was aninquisitive, bright, good man. At the same time I was reading M.L. King’s “Letterfrom a Birmingham Jail”, a monumental essay against intolerance, racism, andthe hypocrisies of our country. The title, taken from a line in that essay,could mean many things depending on your perspective.


Movement Five: Ceaseless Motion (Watch the future Roll By)

Thefinale is a “perpetual motion” salvo. It’s supposed to create the feeling ofintense, ceaseless activity, a wheel that won’t stop. It picks up on some ofthe energy suggested in Movement One, and blasts forth like a run-on sentence,like Jack Kerouac describing Neal Cassady, like New York on a particularlyfrenetic day. Most of the material is based on lines that include minor thirds,fourths, and raised fourths (material that shows up in the melody in the secondmovement as well.) Again, the strings are front and center, establishing thegroove, and the apex is a sax solo. I figured it was important to really cutloose here.


In Memoriam: Dana Brayton

Thispiece was written following the death of my close friend Dana Brayton. Dana wasan amazing composer, who inspired me in many ways, going back to when I met himin college and we played in my first jazz group. It is impossible to accountfor the void that this kind of loss brings; still, the act of making musichelps the pain to migrate into something larger than one’s self.

Thelonesome ascending opening gives way to an elegiac melody which leads towards aspiral of upward movement. The image in my mind was similar to the kabbalisticnotion of “sparks flying upward.” I imagined his spirit spinning upwardstowards… (well, towards what?) Dana always loved the sound of funky blues in my guitar playing, so itseemed fitting to move into a blues-based eruption of sound from the electric slideguitar, bass, and drums. After a frenzied pinnacle there is a return to a darkreharmonisation of the opening theme. The end conjures the image of a lastexhalation of breath.



Igratefully acknowledge the New York State Council of the Arts for a grantfunding the composition of The Wheel, and the Mary Flagler Cary Trust for a grant which funded itsrecording.  Thanks to Don Palmerand Gayle Morgan in particular. Also, to the Virginia Center for Creative Artsand the Macdowell colony for refuge, and composers Dana Brayton, Carman Moore,Gunther Schuller, Alvin Singleton, and Henry Threadgill for inspiration. And tothe players- their talents are unique and mighty. 


Supportedin part by a grant from the New York State Music Fund, established by the NewYork State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. 


Atthe first strokes of the fiddle bow

Thedancers rise from their seats…

Sothat even the night has its clarity, and time

Isthe wheel that brings it round.



RecordedFebruary 9/10 at Systems Two, Brooklyn by Michael Marciano

Mixedby Todd Sickafoose

Masteredby Jody Elff

Artworkby Yvonne Pietz,

Photosby Todd Chalfant

Compositionsby Joel Harrison:
Pure Land Publishing, BMI

Allrights reserved

Publishedin the USA by Joel Harrison: Pure Land Publishing, BMI

Publishedin Europe by Intuition
Music Publishing, Mainz/Germany


innovais supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.

innovaDirector: Philip Blackburn

OperationsManager: Chris Campbell