Mood Swings

Tom Harrell Samples the Bitter With the Better

The Art of Rhythm is not as consistent, but is perhaps more personal. Harrell plays only on the ensemble on "Caribe," a de facto concerto for Dewey Redman that suggests Ellingtonian precision; for all I know, Harrell wrote it 30 years ago, but it sounds as though it were conceived for Redman and that's the point. It goes from a throat-clearing Coltrane setting to a groggy steel-drum theme that is, in turn, opposed by ominous ensemble chords, before Redman's yearning tenor takes off on its pitch-stretching trip. The big-band album, Time's Mirror, is not as expressively imagined; half the arrangements date from the 1960s, and often reflect Stan Kenton's influence, albeit with a leavening wit. "Autumn Leaves" incorporates an appealing countermelody and a strong Alex Foster tenor solo, and "Chasin' the Bird" fills out the harmonies, intensifying the contrapuntal theme. Some of the writing, though, feels dated and oppressive.

With the release of Paradise, Harrell's RCAs suddenly seem to parallel the Silver 'N cycle—happily lacking lyrics, singers, and advice to young people. It isn't just the changing instrumentation or project-like productions. Harrell's strings echo Silver's, as do his several ostinatos. The opening sections of Silver's "Empathy" or "Optimism," before the vocals, would blend right in with Harrell's work, as would the strings/harp interplay on "Progress Through Dedication and Discipline." Yet while Silver also wrote pieces called "The Tranquilizer Suite" and "The Mental Sphere," his work rarely looks into corners Harrell regularly examines. So it's disappointing when the trumpeter lightens the material, as he did at a Vanguard set, giving way to the samba, letting saxophonist Jimmy Greene provide the heat. Harrell was merely polite on "Baroque Steps," one of the album's headiest tracks. His one superb solo of the set, on flügelhorn, forced the drummer to abandon what had become a tranquilizing Latin foundation.

The album has its longueurs, too, but overcomes them with a suitelike design, as vaguely similar melodies and scoring echo each other over the long haul. "Daybreak" is the first but not the last theme that suggests Silver's long-stepping melodies that wind around like a carousel. It also suggests the steel-drum theme of Harrell's "Caribe." After a rest, the band takes up the head in roaring hard-bop fashion and Harrell plays with cool wrath. "Baroque Steps" is startling: The ostinato, combining an eight-beat figure for cello and three-note countervamp by the other strings, precedes a darker theme with two parts, one sorta Asian, the other sorta Middle Eastern, before coming home with a howdy from the bridge of Monk's "Epistrophe." Early Silver is also recalled. The ostinato and theme, for example, are reminiscent of the piano comping and theme of "Sayonara Blues." Harrell's meditative improv is perfectly matched to the material.

Sometimes his multiple personalities merge.
photo: Neil Murphy
Sometimes his multiple personalities merge.

"Nighttime" is a bit too sumptuous, almost genteel; Harrell offers occasional high-calorie notes that suggest Bobby Hackett, which is fine, but not here. Xavier Davis's piano is cocktailish and the string reprise would have served beautifully for a Douglas Sirk movie. At 11 minutes, it lumbers. Toward the end, a passage for flügel and rhythm restores candor, and Harrell plays a few notes that hurt the way Miles hurts on Sketches of Spain before the movie music returns. The last third of the piece wrestles between his fever and the strings' damp cloth. Wah-wah guitar undermines "Wind Chant," though the head (a vague nod to Silver's "Tokyo Blues") sustains a feeling of unity that becomes more pronounced in the terrifically foreboding strings ostinato at the start of "Paradise Spring." This passage too quickly dissolves into a 6/8 clave beat, but dark unto himself, Harrell revokes its feeling in his questing, softly motivic solo. The two-part "Morning Prayer" is somber yet funny. The first section, written entirely for the strings, has a forlorn and shivery theme ending in mustache-twirling tremolos. The idea, according to Harrell, is to contrast "despair and hope," as for example Don Ellis did in "Despair to Hope" and Weather Report did in "Orange Lady"—comedians file jokes by subject, and Harrell references melodies by programmatic ideas. Naturally, Part Two is an upbeat samba, charming and almost serene. But you know that isn't the end of the story. Harrell is the definition of a work in progress, which is what makes him enduringly interesting.

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