“It’s a lot of history that I’m trying to make new again.”
That’s Joel Harrison’s stated approach to the wide-ranging covers that grace most of his new album Mother Stump, due out May 27, 2014 from Cuneiform Records. The play-anything guitarist originally from Washington, D.C. largely swapped his composer hat for his performer hat on this collection of nine songs, seven of which are by other, mostly famous people. And this is where the “make new again” part comes in.
Yes, Mother Stump is more or less one of those covers records that reveals to the audience the broad array of influences who shaped Harrison, but it doesn’t demand to be regarded as such, either. That’s because Harrison had so successfully worked these songs into his own image, it’s easy to forget that he didn’t write ’em.
It’s surely easy to forget that his swampy, blues-rock take on the traditional gospel blues “John the Revelator” is the same call and response song that Blind Willie Johnson recorded at the start of the Great Depression. Enhanced with splashes of backwoods psychedelia it reaches its peaks with drummer Jeremy ‘Bean’ Clemons’ powerful pounding.
From there, Harrison comes forward decades to take on Paul Motian’s “Folk Song For Rosie,” setting it on fire with shards of notes billowing from his guitar in a lean power trio with Clemons and bassist Michael Bates, the format for a good chunk of this album. Most importantly, Harrison gets to the essence of song but on his own terms. His take on Buddy Miller’s “Wide River To Cross” is also interesting, because it’s country but with a real soulful essence assisted by Glenn Patscha’s B3, and yet the rhythm section subtly and increasingly moves closer toward a jazz rhythm. They reprise the song later and the second time around, a pretty, resonating slide guitar permeates the performance.
This falls in line with Harrison emphasizing his guitar more on Mother Stump. It’s got a nice, tube-y tone and he puts it to good use on tunes like his original, the slowly simmering “Refuge.” On another Harrison-penned song “Do You Remember Big Mama Thornton?”, the prowling rock groove, a Hammond B3 and his blues guitar are ingredients that might have made a really good Robben Ford song. Harrison takes that opportunity to jam extensively, in a style that doesn’t cop Ford or really anyone else, for that matter.
Harrison is equally capable of playing with heartfelt, quiet passion, as within the Luther Vandross ballad “Dance With My Father Again.” This performance begins with a lyrical bass figure from Bates, but instead of fading back, Bates stays put and Harrison plays tastefully and sensitively around him.
You might not appreciate the artists covered on Mother Stump as much as Joel Harrison, or may not even like them at all. That won’t matter at all, if blues-inflected progressive jazz guitar is your thing.