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New York-based, D.C.-raised guitarist Joel Harrison is best known as a jazz player with South Asian and classical influences. But this Saturday night, he’s taking a D.C. roadhouse approach, and on Sunday, he’s taking on the sound of a jazz-funk-rock power trio.
On Saturday at the recently expanded honky-tonk JV’s in Falls Church, Harrison, who is on the locally based Cuneiform Records, will be joining labelmate and fellow eclectic guitarist Anthony Pirog as part of the Telecaster Tribute Band. The group will play homage to legendary local guitarists from the late 1960s through the 1980s like Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan who blended rock, jazz, country, folk , funk and blues.
As a teenager, Harrison used to follow Gatton around to his gigs and to Gatton’s Maryland shop where he worked on guitars and hot rods. Harrison and Pirog will be joined by longtime local D.C. bassist John Previti, who played with Gatton and countless other roots and jazz players, along with drummer Jack O’Dell, best known for his stickwork with roots-rock guitarist Bill Kirchen. Pirog is best known for his jazzy art-rock fingerwork, but like Harrison, he is a fan of old-school D.C. honky-tonk sounds.
On Sunday, Harrison will be joined at Bohemian Caverns by his group Mother Stump (which is also the name of a 2014 album) featuring D.C. native Allison Miller on drums and Michael Bates on bass, with Pirog sitting in. Via email and phone I spoke with Harrison about his projects.
Arts Desk: What made you decide to revisit the D.C. roadhouse sounds that you said you listened to from 1974 to 1985?
Harrison: I think it’s always been there in my playing, but it became more obvious in terms of something I was putting a spotlight on as it were for this record Mother Stump, which I put out after releasing a record for nineteen musicians. That featured some long and complex pieces for that jazz big band. So I needed to do something fun and simple after that. So that’s what brought about Mother Stump. But also getting to that age where you are looking back to who your formative influences were and seeing more gold that can be mined. So when I booked this date at Bohemian Caverns I mentioned it to Anthony, and we had been talking about what else can we do together and where else can we play. He mentioned JV’s, and I said that sounds like a lot of fun. I had just been talking to Dave Previti, and he knows Dave Elliot from Danny Gatton’s old band and I thought, god, let’s get them to do it. Then they said they’d do it and we were really freaked out about it, but really excited. But then Dave had some conflicts with the gig so we got Jack O’Dell, but it’s still a really great rhythm section. I just can never really get enough of all that stuff that I grew up on. It’s just such great music, especially Danny’s. It makes me so happy every time I hear it.
I was just listening to his Redneck Jazz Explosion album that I think was recorded live at the Cellar Door…
Oh that’s insane. That might be his most amazing record.
But then I was listening to Mother Stump, and maybe I didn’t listen enough, but are there any Gatton Redneck Jazz influences on that?
I think that all the influences are not necessarily obvious. I think that probably my most obvious influences from Danny were on my Free Country record that I put out in 2003. I did a version of “Folsom Prison Blues” that really was a nod to him. I would say that the influences are more in attitude and in tone. One thing I never wanted to try to do was to play his licks or play his repertoire. If you listen to how I play that Al Kooper tune “Love You More than You’ll Ever Know,” you’ll hear an echo of how he played “Harlem Nocturne,” I think, and how Roy Buchanan played. The D.C. roots thing is there its just that I also have a lot of other influences.
How did you get into them? So, you were listening to stuff like that as well as ’70s jazz-rock and such?
My tastes in music are very wide. What I loved about Danny is he combined jazz, country, blues, rock, rockabilly, and more effortlessly. That kind of “style-free” eclecticism spoke to me. Both he and Buchanan had amazing tone and touch, and could evoke worlds within worlds with one note. They had more than technique, they had soul. So while I was listening to Weather Report, Chick Corea, too, I loved the raw, guitar-based sound of Danny’s playing, evoking so much American history, roots stretching to the stratosphere.
Will you be doing at JV’s some of the same covers that he did ?
We will be doing all covers, and it’s not gonna be a jazz gig at all. If you look at [Gatton’s group] the Fat Boys or one of his countless bar gigs, what is really great about them is there is this kind of array of styles. It’s all this up American music—country, rock, funk with an ethos of jazz and rockabilly also. So that’s what we are gonna do . It’s gonna be like a roadhouse gig but we’re gonna also bring our own thing to it. I will sing some and we will do Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Plus some of the stuff that Roy Buchanan did that Anthony specializes in. Who knows? If I have the nerve we’ll even play “Harlem Nocturne.”
When did you and Anthony first meet up?
I had heard him play as someone had given me one of his records and he sounded really great. It turns out that I had written these liner notes to Mother Stump about meeting Danny and knowing Danny, and so then Steve from Cuneiform Records told me that Anthony was just passionate about those D.C. roots, so we started talking about it, and I said I would come down and we’d do a double bill. So we did and had a lot of fun and played a couple of tunes together. I really appreciate the way he combines experimentalism with those roots as well as the way it’s reflected in his different projects.
Are you a fan of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew?
Oh my god yes! So many different things come together in those records.
Tell me about Bill Harris, the D.C. jazz guitarist who had a club called The Pigfoot.
I studied with him. He was my first jazz teacher. He and Charlie Byrd had this nylon string jazz thing that they did that was kind of interesting. I later taught at his studio.
Did you see Evan Johns play? I saw him do rockabilly things once or twice.
I met him when he was 16, and he was like already fully formed in his playing. It was weird. He started playing gigs when he was even younger than that. When he joined Danny’s band that’s when I saw him the most. I wouldn’t consider him an influence, but well, here’s a guy who really knew American music well. All different kinds, and in his own irreverent way brought it together in his songwriting and bar show.
Has anyone come up with an explanation for that whole era from Roy to Danny and Evan, these guitarists interested in such diverse types of American music?
I tried to put my fingers on it in my liner notes to Mother Stump. It took me a long time to try to figure this out, but Washington, especially back then, was both a Southern and a Northern town. You had bluegrass emanating up from the Blue Ridge Mountains with the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen; you had the rocking country and rockabilly thing coming in from Southern Maryland; you had the African-American community with jazz and influences coming in from Baltimore and New York and Philly and the soul and funk sound; and under-girding all this was the blues. It was a town where all these different classes and cultures mixed even though it was a very segregated place, except the music wasn’t segregated. Free form radio was around back then so you could hear this music all the time. More than other places it was kind of a crossroads kind of town.
Back to the JV’s gig—will you all get together and rehearse?
Anthony and I are gonna get together, but no, this will be just living in the moment and get up and play. It will be in the spirit of those guys. I don’t think they rehearsed a lot, they just played all the time. But they shared a common language.
Joel Harrison, Anthony Pirog and the Telecaster Tribute Band perform Saturday at 9:15 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. at JV’s, 6666 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church.
Joel Harrison and Mother Stump with Anthony Pirog perform Sunday at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. NW. $15
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this post suggested that Redneck Jazz was recorded live at the Cellar Door. It wasn’t, but Redneck Jazz Explosion was.