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By Chris Chafin
Tom Harrell's unevenness as an improviser and composer has generated one of jazz's most consistent dramas over the past 25 years. When the planets come into alignment in a Harrell solo; when all is focused and driven and he knows where he is headed but takes his time getting there, diverting himself with melodic fragments and oddly accented color notes; when his tone is warm, moist, supple, and sure, despite an attack that can be downright fierce, it is tempting to throw caution to the winds and proclaim him the great trumpet player of his generation. But then there are those other moments, when he struggles to find the target, when his influences predominate or he succumbs to a drab, almost sentimental lilt, underscored by his affection for samba and other placating Latin beats. Both Harrells are on display on his new album, Paradise(RCA Victor), and they vied for attention last week at the Village Vanguard.
The drama finds at least a partial exposition in his much-discussed lifelong battle with schizophrenia and the medication it requiresa subject treated with remarkable lightness in the punning titles of several Harrell pieces, including "Upswing," "Mood Swing," "Bear That in Mind," "Wishing Well," "Blue News," "Viable Blues," "Rapture," and "Glass Mystery," which recalls Bud Powell's "Glass Enclosure." And it finds a corollary in his bandstand presence, stock-still, never even tapping a toe, then raising horn to lips, and BAM!off to the races. Harrell's intensity, musically and personally, may be one reason so many musicians play with daring and concentration in his bands. Joe Lovano, Danilo Perez, Billy Hart, Kenny Werner, Don Braden, Dewey Redman, Greg Tardy, and others obviously do not need Harrell to play well, but they have all recorded some of their finest work on his watch.
After a big-band apprenticeship with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, Harrell made his name during long stays with Horace Silver in the 1970s and Phil Woods in the 1980s. The Silver period was formative. After Blue Mitchell left the Silver quintet in 1964, the pianist spent a decade trying out trumpeters (Woody Shaw, Charles Tolliver, Randy Brecker, Cecil Bridgewater) before settling on Harrell and featuring him on the Silver 'Nseriesfive LPs recorded between 1975 and 1979, which climaxed his tenure with Blue Note and, coincidentally, brought the label itself to a four-year hiatus. (Silver 'N Stringswas the last Blue Note session until 1983, when the company was brought under the EMI umbrella and reawakened with George Russell's The African Game, a factoid I gleaned from Michael Cuscuna and Michel Ruppli's The Blue Note Label, published by Greenwood for a sobering $135; notify your library.) Though marred by heavy-handed didacticism in song titles and lyrics, these long-neglected albumsall out of printoffer shrewd writing and playing while tracing Harrell's progress from a lyrical but tentative solo on Silver 'N Brass's "Kissin' Cousins" (he was 28) to a breakout statement on "The Soul and Its Expression" (Silver 'N Strings): He follows a ferocious Larry Schneider tenor solo with an intricate figure, cannily developed, and leaves his several influences in the dust.
Harrell has himself spoken of multiple personalities, and at least two dominate the early period: the cheerfully rounded lyrical exuberance of Clifford Brown and Blue Mitchell ("The Mohican and the Great Spirit" on Silver 'N Percussionis a good example) and the vehement fury of Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw ("Assimilation," on Silver 'N Wood). Sometimes, both approaches merge, lighting a fire on "Togetherness" (Silver 'N Voices; Bob Berg's tenor is also inflamed) and running to wry and moody complexity on the same album's "Mood for Maude." When he joined Woods, Harrell's stylistic confidence peaked, yet two or three Milesian personalities emerged on his own recordsthe skittery Miles of the charged arpeggios, melodic shards, and rhythmic displacement ("Eons," Sail Away); the unearthly, balladic Miles of the careful aphorisms and fat sound ("Shapes," Time's Mirror); the anarchic Miles of the drone chords, dynamic change-ups, and eight-beat rocking ("Story," Stories). Harrell assimilated each approach. On the exceptional 1990 Form, where he is exuberantly backed by Lovano, Perez, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, his trumpet ghosts are, at best, sampledI mean to imply something more like current electronic appropriation than traditional jazz borrowingnever indulged.
Yet Harrell doesn't come alive as a rounded figure until the RCA Victor series that began with Labyrinth, in 1996, and has continued with The Art of Rhythm, Time's Mirror, and the current Paradise. RCA does not do much with jazz, but has given Harrell his headpermitting him guest soloists, a big band, a string quartet and harp, allowing him to boldly advance as a composer. Despite a too frequent reliance on Latin rhythms, a lot of ground is covered and his penchant for sampling is exponentially increased as his tunes employ fragments that he promptly transmutes. This is not an instance of eclecticisma little this, a little thatbut rather a freely associative drawing upon whatever melodies, riffs, and vamps float around in his memory bank.
Like many of his themes, Labyrinth's "Samba Mate" has a vague familiarityhard to pin down, almost generic, yet rendered distinct; it evidently has Kenny Werner thinking of other tunes, because he hardly starts his solo before flashing a measure from The Nutcracker. "Majesty," an overtly classical piece, could pass as the love child of Grieg and Villa-Lobos. A particularly poignant Harrell solo is heard on "Blue in One," a slow blues with substitute changes that begins with solemn ensemble chords over a lonely cymbal beat, which soon fills out into plush drums as the nonet heads into an undulating, boppish big-band theme of a kind Woody Herman took to the bank 30 years ago. After Gary Smulyan's excellent baritone solo, the drums retreat into a brief rest before Harrell makes his entrance with a melodic paraphrase of his themea five-note motive that typifies the direction of his four ensuing choruses, each designed with cautionary elegance. If the easy pacing, rich mid register, and occasional phrase or two recall Miles, the poetic effect suggests, as Ira Gitler once observed, the snug introvert lyricism of Tony Fruscella.