The Joe Harriott Quintet: Abstract – Free Jazz was never so free

This album is famous for having received the first ever five-star review for a jazz album  from Harvey Pekar in Down Beat. Harriott was always keen to communicate his ideas, be it on stage, in interviews or album liner notes. In 1962, he wrote in the liner notes for his Abstract album, “of the various components comprising jazz today – constant time signatures, a steady four-four tempo, themes and predictable harmonic variations, fixed division of the chorus by bar lines and so on, we aim to retain at least one in each piece. But we may well, if the mood seems to us to demand it, dispense with all the others”.

It’s worth remembering. Retaining at least 1 of the basic elements of jazz means this album never strays far from its roots. For lovers of trad, who don’t really care for all that Sun Ra ra ra ra – this is a perfect accompaniment to the segue between work and home. It’s a little more Mingus or Coleman.

And it is a cruizy free-flow of pure jazz rocket-ride if ever I heard one.

The first three tracks are up beat free flow jazz wit enough be-bop still left over to keep conservatives happy. By the time we hit ‘Modal’, that sultry sexy jazz that we all know and love is there to lull us into relaxed mode. ‘Pictures’ takes us back to haunting and slow, and with ‘Idioms’ we’re back to the bee-bop beat with some late time salsa style drumming bringing up the rear in ‘Compound’.  While this is an excellent example of early free jazz style, don’t expect high level experimentation. This is a perfectly knit unit playing jazz in a comfortable style with a little bit of first time radical thrown in for excitement.  For the most part this beautiful album is all about jazz. The jazz we know, love and trust.

Harriott blows it all away in Oleo, though he is always focussed, always one with the music. More consistently lyrical is Shake Keane, whose trumpet playing can move from nervous mobility to a kind of cirro-cumulus softness. The best of the L.P. is side two where the ambiguities are tied together tightly and the drums are strongly in control.



Here’s a really nice review piece from Nic Jones on the All about Jazz blog:

A certain view of jazz history has us believe that responsibility for the evolution of the music lies exclusively in American hands. This is both too deterministic and a slight upon the music’s power to move and to influence. As early as the late 1930s European players were making innovations of their own at the same time as some Europeans were regarding jazz as akin to the spawn of Satan; the guitarist Django Reinhardt for example was contributing greatly to the jazz vocabulary of his chosen instrument. The same is true of bop, hard bop and the ‘cool school’, all of which had their fluent and capable European acolytes in the 1950s; the Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin made a name for himself in the last of these.

The West Indian-born alto saxophonist Joe Harriott was one of the most convincing boppers outside of the USA at a time when the music was still fresh, though by the end of the 1950s he was exploring freer musical pastures, and the quintet with which he undertook the exploration was an outgrowth of the hard bop band with which he’d made a name on the British scene. As the 1960s progressed, Harriott also proved himself to be something of a pioneer in the fusion field, in the way he fused jazz and classical Indian music in collaboration with the violinist John Mayer.



Often in the past the group’s music, in which trumpet and flugelhorn player Shake Keane figured alongside Harriott in the front line, has been compared with that of the early Ornette Coleman quartets. Such labelling does justice to neither group’s work, and also overlooks the fact that Harriott’s band included a pianist, Pat Smythe, who proved himself highly conversant with Harriott’s different methodology.

Coleridge Goode, the bassist in Harriott’s band, has written of how much headway the band made with the new music once drummer Phil Seaman arrived on the scene(1) The music the group produced on both the Free Form and Abstract albums has little in common with Coleman’s. Here it’s far more interactive, a fact borne out most obviously by the lack of soloists. This makes for a far more organic music than anything Coleman’s group was putting out at the time. This is most pronounced on Calypso from the Free Form album, where the rhythm of that indigenously West Indian form is extraordinarily maintained in the midst of characteristic group exchanges.

I found it difficult to get some sound bites of this album for some reason. I’ve added two tracks from Free Form, the album Harriott made just before Abstract that has a similar sound.


Track List

1 Subject

Written-By – Joe Harriott, John Mayer (2)


2 Shadows

Written-By – Joe Harriott


3 Oleo

Written-By – Sonny Rollins


4 Modal

Written-By – Joe Harriott


5 Tonal

Written-By – Joe Harriott


6 Pictures

Written-By – Joe Harriott


7 Idioms

Written-By – Joe Harriott


8 Compound

Written-By – Joe Harriott