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 requires—a 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 ‘N series—five 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 Strings was 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 albums—all out of print—offer 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 Percussion is 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 records—the 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, sampled—I mean to imply something more like current electronic appropriation than traditional jazz borrowing—never 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 head—permitting 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 eclecticism—a little this, a little that—but 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 familiarity—hard 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 theme—a 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.
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.
“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.