Inhabiting the myth status granted long-unavailable vinyl, saxophonist Joe Harriott's music has been plucked from relative obscurity by Ken Vandermark's Joe Harriott Project. Born in Jamaica, Harriott emigrated at age 25, establishing himself on the British bebop scene. At some point in the late '50s, he began work on what he termed "free form" jazz, only two albums of which ever saw vinyl: Free Form (recorded in 1960) and Abstract (1961-62). The obvious comparison is Ornette Coleman's work of the period, though it seems to have become a point of pride for some British critics to insist that Harriott was working without precedent. Although Harriott had no discernible impact on the contemporaneous American scene, Brit players such as Evan Parker have long claimed his inspiration, and the surprisingly trad sound of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's re-released early sessions indicate that they may not have fallen so far from the tree themselves.But while Parker and others laud Harriott's inventiveness as a soloist and leader, Vandermark concentrates on the reconfiguration possibilities afforded by the compositions, and herein lies the problem. Harriott's quintet for those sessions comprised a stock rhythm section augmented by Pat Smythe's piano and a frontline shared by Shake Keane on trumpet and Harriott on alto sax. The Project keeps the drums and bass (frequent Vandermark collaborators Tim Mulvenna and Kent Kessler, respectively), loses the piano altogether and substitutes Jeb Bishop's trombone on the line. The results are not altogether uninteresting, but the revision never quite coheres.
The thing is, as radical as Harriott's compositional angles may have seemed at the time, their innovation has long since been exhausted. Vandermark admits to finding much of Free Form and Abstract "corny," and it's on the more standard material that the music suffers most. Perhaps the absence of piano "loosens the texture," as Steve Beresford claims, but it also strands the leads in midrange murkiness. The Project would have been better served by the attachment of, say, Borah Bergman, whose Coleman remodel, Reflections on Ornette Coleman and the Stone House, has the spark that's missing here. Straight Lines works occasionally, such as on "Shadows," where the theme is kept sketchy enough to evoke the interior space of a mid-'60s ESP-Disk release. More often though ("Tonal," "Idioms"), the Project doesn't work at all, leaving Vandermark and Bishop to meander around looking for interesting ways to accommodate Harriott's post-bop melodicism. With the preservation project of the Project obviated by Polygram/Redial's reissue of the original sides, Ken Vandermark's Joe Harriott Project is left to its own merits. As a tribute, Straight Lines is surely well intentioned; as a work in and of itself, you're better off picking up the originals.