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John Fordham hails the saxophonist who, with John Mayer, invented a fusion of jazz and Indian music

Harriott's afire
Joe Harriott/John Mayer - Indo-Jazz Fusions 1 & 2
(Redial 538 048-2)

Watching musicians queue to breach barriers and pile any pigeonholes remaining on to the scrap heap, younger listeners may struggle to imagine a time when putting an alto saxophonist on stage alongside sitars and tablas was cause for comment. The double quintet of Joe Harriott and composer/violinist John Mayer for instance, was among the first groups to invoke that dreaded word "fusion".

Highly regarded for the raw passion of his solos in, mostly, a bebop context, Harriott signalled a new direction with his Free Form, recorded in 1960 and hailed as a European counterpart to Ornette Coleman's free jazz. In the mid-sixties, he joined Mayer for the Indo-Jazz project that led to live performances and three albums, the final two comprising this CD.

As puoneers, they faced problems. How, for instance, to blend their quintets, especially on stage, when the jazz contingent tended to raise most decibels and the techniques of amplification were primitive by todays standards? For all the talk, the outcome often resembled the kind of dancing in which partners do everything but touch each other.

What stands out on their performances is the strength Harriott draws from the Indian challenge. Having latterly heard him with pick-up trios in jazz clubs, it was obvious to me that he thrived upon Mayer's compositions. These develop from a quiet opening, the ragas unwinding at leisure over the droning tambura and the clip-clopping tabla, until the moment when the alto sweeps in. His improvisations are in modal form - which by then was common enough, except that the more intricate Indian rhythmic patterns added a spicy touch.

From experience gained during the year seperating these recording sessions, Mayer grew bolder in meshing the idioms, giving the musicians their heads while keeping control, Harriott still dominates, but other instrumentalists have much stronger roles and, in this context, the addition of Kenny Wheeler's probing trumpet lines could not be bettered. These final four tracks, including a blues written by Mayer and pianist Pat Smythe, remain among the best Indian-influenced jazz, or whatever, on record. Live performances by the double quintet reached similar levels.

The CD can be ordered from the Guardian Culture Shop on 0500 600102 (price $9.99 + 99p&p)

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