New York City guitarist Joel Harrison hadn’t been in San Diego since the mid-'90s, so there was a palpable buzz when he announced his appearance at Dizzy’s on Monday night. A large part of that excitement centered around the band he put together in support of his latest CD, “Spirit House,” featuring former Pat Metheny Group member Cuong Vu on trumpet, Brian Blade on drums, longtime associate Paul Hanson on bassoon and Bay Area resident Jeff Denson on bass.
Harrison’s strength lies in his compositions, which are unrepentantly melodic. He made full use of the unusual blend of guitar, trumpet and bassoon on the very first tune, “Chant for Jim Pepper,” a pentatonic theme that soared into the rafters while offering concise solo opportunities for Hanson’s saxophone-ish dexterity and the stinging vibrato of the leader, all levitated to an ecstatic degree by Blade’s interactive drumming.
“Left Hook,” was next, with a stop-start freebop theme that reminded me of Kenny Wheeler. Vu really shined on this one, showcasing a rich, burnished tone and a relaxed, controlled velocity that demonstrated an ability to roll with the muscular bass and crackling percussion.
“Spirit House,” a finger-style ballad, sang with gorgeous melodic unisons and an episodic -- almost cinematic -- sense of storytelling, alongside an ebullient feature for Hanson, whose fingers seemed to race up and down his horn.
“Creator/Destroyer” careened from intricate unisons to gauzy textures, setting up an environment for Vu to uncoil serpentine lines that interweaved through the Blade minefield with lithe acuity and growling punctuation. Hanson answered with a blistering essay of his own, and in his hands, the bassoon was anything but the lumbering, cumbersome second-string orchestral voice.
Harrison took the spotlight on “Old Friends,” soloing in the languid legato tradition of Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie and interacting on a primal continuum with Blade, whose command of dynamics and detail informed the music at every turn.
Blade’s introduction to “Sacred Love” was soft enough to hear a cricket sing, yielding to Vu’s winding blue wail and Harrison’s volume-pedal swells. Denson stuck with the bow for his lone feature of the evening, embracing a ponticello cry that reminded me of Mark Dresser as the band dialed down to a call-and-response vamp for closing arguments.
Harrison introduced the band individually before announcing the finale, “You Must Go Through a Winter” -- another joyous melody that began with a screaming guitar solo before the baton was handed to Vu, whose melodic contours and rhythmic language indicated a singular mind at work. Once again, Blade told a story to conclude the evening, marking a truly unforgettable experience.
Bravo to Chuck Perrin, the lone proprietor of Dizzy’s, for having the vision to bring a project like this to the San Diego jazz community.