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Interviews

Tom Harrell: Boundless Beauty

By Published: May 1, 2009

I always think about what I'm writing and playing to make it mean something to me now. I'm sort of afraid of standing still...

Tom Harrell is an exceptional musician, known for his exquisite playing on trumpet and flugelhorn as well as for the many lyrical melodies, expressive harmonies and undeniably beautiful music he has composed for some 40 years and, happily, counting. Many famous colleagues, orchestras and big bands have recorded his original compositions and arrangements and among jazz aficionados, Harrell's history is as well known as his gifts. He has distinguished himself as a performer with many renowned groups and legendary artists as well as leading his own groups, including his current quintet which recently released a new CD, Prana Dance (HighNote). He has not often been quoted at length about what is important to him as a musician and as a person. In this rare interview, Harrell speaks for himself about what he is up to today.

All About Jazz: Your wife Angela mentioned you're working on some new compositions for your group today. How's it going?

Tom Harrell: Yeah, I've been writing some new compositions for the quintet. It's exciting. I'm always trying to find new ways to combine the instruments to make something fresh. Something that listeners can enjoy and appreciate.

AAJ: I know you've been playing, composing and arranging music for about 40 years. It must be a challenge to keep coming up with new things over a long career. How do you, as you say, keep things fresh?

TH: I pretty much go by my own feelings-how I relate to the sounds in my mind and I also like to relate it to dance rhythms, which makes it contemporary. I also like to relate things to a kind of meditation, a spiritual kind of awareness...

But I guess the main impetus is rhythm. It's the most important element. And if you can take out a fresh harmony and an interesting kind of melody and a new type of rhythm that gives impact. One of the ways to compose is to see how you can modify, extend your own perceptions of the moment in addition to interlocking these elements in a fresh way.

AAJ: Where do you go for inspiration in terms of those 'dance rhythms'? Is it an instinctive kind of rhythm or you do work from rhythms you've come across, you know, heard before in some other form?

TH: The quintet I have now (saxophonist Wayne Escoffery
Wayne Escoffery
Wayne Escoffery
b.1975
sax, tenor
, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake) gives me a lot of inspiration and they're really exciting players. I basically try to relate the rhythms to the clave and to African music and Latin music. It has a pattern that I think is related to the universe itself, the 'yin and yang' pattern. I believe that each person's body is like a microcosm of the universe—a kind of universe unto itself—so when people dance and do yoga it reflects that (connecting them to their own natural rhythms as well as to things beyond their individual selves). When I exercise or even just walking I try to find the tempo that feels natural to me. So I can unwind... Whatever I write also has to feel natural to me. I wouldn't want to write something that feels unnatural. At the same time I want to make compositions something other people can relate to.

AAJ: Maybe that's why your work does feel natural, you strive for that. "Organic" is another word that some people have used to describe your compositions. And yet, they feel logical too-musically. What do you think?

TH: Yeah, that's a good word. I try to create a feeling of flowing. That's maybe the hardest thing is to create a feeling of flowing the melodies, the harmonies and rhythms. As a composer, um, I think of it sometimes as a stream-of-consciousness style, the way you (a writer) might tell a story. Basically you tell a story when you compose the same way you would when you're improvising a solo or talking in a conversation too. It's storytelling.

Charlie Parker once said he would try to translate beauty in music. So in a sense I think that's a pretty good description of what a composer does. You can take a daily situation or a feeling you experience during the day, or night, and convey it in notes and rhythms.

AAJ: As you travel a lot for your work, both playing and as a composer/arranger, are you influenced by outside things like places, nature, or weather? Or by more "inner" feelings?

TH: Yes, outside experiences can naturally generate emotions within so it's a good thing to note there is an outside and an inner world for all individuals, all people and all living things. But especially in human beings ... Consciousness I guess is a form of inner awareness so you relate to the outside events.

When I say I'm influenced by feelings—I'd answer yes to your question. Feelings are influenced by outer experiences. That's one of the ways you can experience emotions you've never felt before and also listening to music you can experience new emotions.

That's one of the beautiful things about art is that you can experience emotions you've never experienced before and it can even stimulate you to have new thoughts and new ways of relating to situations. One of the things I found out as I became more and more involved in music is what good people musicians are—they've helped me try to become more sensitive in all areas of life ...

AAJ: Can you give an example of something from your travels that directly influenced you musically?

TH: You do sometimes experience impressions while you're traveling, touring that can come out in the music. When I was in North Africa I heard musical scales in a new way, when they were performed. That gave me new insight, another perspective. Also the way the North African scales influence Spanish music. I got a different feeling... The scales are vibrant and the ways of performing them convey deep emotion. I think that "cry," the element you hear in different parts of the world (for example in vocal techniques), from the folk tradition of the music, the deep ethnic roots of the music, from Western Africa and the blues (is moving). All art I think comes from a deep folk tradition.

AAJ: Many listeners and jazz lovers really enjoy hearing someone who plays with some element of deep feeling. But sometimes it seems that some musicians strive to show off what they can do technically—and that, for them, it's more about that, sequences or notes and pyrotechnics, than telling us something about themselves, about being a human being, whatever...

TH: That's the ultimate goal (playing with true feeling). Although Coltrane showed that you can do everything. He showed that you can play with a deep spiritual involvement and also be a great innovator and also reach a wide audience.

AAJ: Making it not so simple to generalize about music and musicianship?

TH: You really can't put it into words. Poets, that's what writers try to do—put the ultimate experience into words. But music of course can transcend words. Coltrane wrote a beautiful prayer, statement on "A Love Supreme." He was using words too...

AAJ: Since we're talking about words. You have such interesting evocative titles for many of your compositions. They do seem to reflect themes and feelings in your pieces. Music isn't about words, of course, but how do you come up with those? Many musicians say they have trouble naming songs.

TH: Usually I come up with the title. Sometimes they're suggested by other people. Many wife Angela came up with some of the beautiful titles. I do think it's important to relate titles to the songs themselves. Sometimes a title is suggested by a phrase in a melody. Or sometimes it's also conveyed by the emotions of a song. I wrote a song recently I called "Eternal Spring" because that was the feeling I had. I feel like Robert Frost once said, "Sometimes I entertain great hopes." And I keep that quotation in my mind. And what [guru Paramahansa] Yogananda said, "Transcend even this..."

I've been in stages in my life when I thought that I was receiving a lot of negative criticism, comments and I went into a time of chronic depression but I always hold on to what a friend once told me, that even if the world turns against you, you know, as long as you retain the feeling of hope, or as long as you believe in yourself, that's the most important thing. And I think that's one of the most valuable things to convey in music is a 'feeling of hope.' I guess you can even say 'optimism.' Because many things can make you negative but there is hope now because there is a new President..."

AAJ: We are in a difficult world. I don't know if things were ever easy but certainly if you follow what's going on the headlines, the economy... But that's always been an American thing, hasn't it? No matter how tough things get, there's possibility for change? Perhaps that relates to jazz music, too—something that's always changing, evolving?

TH: That's true. Because of the freedom of the music people are always going ahead, moving toward something they can bring to the music, to create something new."

AAJ: Can you cite something that helps you find new ways to create your music?

TH: I always think about what I'm writing and playing to make it mean something to me now. I'm sort of afraid of standing still... But then, I try to keep studying. It really helps to look at other people's music, to listen to other people's scores and recordings. I don't want to directly imitate people but if I do approach a style, I try to bring something of my own to it."

AAJ: What or who are you listening to lately?

TH: I've been listening to some European classical music. I haven't been listening to many records of American classical music—jazz—because I have been afraid that I would imitate someone. But I did hear, when we were traveling, some music by Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
b.1973
trumpet
, which was very impressive... because I could hear how he was doing new things. I think it was pretty new. I don't know the title but it was very good. It was on the same wavelength of what I'm trying to do. As long as someone is doing something new and I can hear how it relates to the tradition, it can be interesting.

I also heard some really nice music by Kevin Hays
Kevin Hays
Kevin Hays
b.1968
keyboard
. Also, when I did a record date abroad I also heard some really good musicians who I played with. I did a record date in France with a great singer, Elisabeth Kontomanou. She recorded something a year ago with the French National Orchestre of Lorraine (for which Harrell wrote symphony orchestra arrangements) and her own trio that will be released next year (2010). I also worked with a vocalist Ann Malcolm. It was with an 8-piece group augmented to a 9-piece. It had a European classical influence. There was great violinist, a beautiful cellist, two really good bass players, some others. (In 2006 Harrell was awarded a Chamber Music America grant for which he wrote and performed new compositions for trumpet and piano; he enjoys doing duos with piano and has done such projects with Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
1955 - 2013
piano
and the Italian Dado Moroni
Dado Moroni
Dado Moroni
b.1962
piano
. Another favorite type of project is writing arrangements for full symphony orchestras.).

AAJ: It sounds from what you've said and some of the projects you've taken on that you appreciate "European classical" music?

TH: I look at jazz being influenced by European classical music. If you study the music you can see that there's really no separation between European classical music and American classical music [jazz]. Because if you look at the work of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, his music was classical in scope. All the great composers of American classical music—jazz music—their work is on a par with European classical. There's an intertwining of influences. Debussy was influenced by jazz music, and Ravel.

AAJ: Are those composers you listen to when you're not working?

TH: I'm always working... That's the way I look at it. I'm always thinking about music.

I try to relate to sounds in a musical way. I love the beauty of sound. When I'm peaceful... I guess I'm thinking about music more when I'm peaceful, when I'm not worried about "the conscious." I have trouble relating to life on a conscious level.

AAJ: Your work, it can't all be inspiration? Must be hard at times?

TH: When you're composing, there's an element of drudgery too. There's a lot of manual labor... Someone once called it "backbreaking."

AAJ: And practicing, as a player?

TH: Definitely is difficult. But it can be a lot of fun too. When you think of new ideas and working on them... Practicing I write things down. Ideas and I can think of melodies when I'm playing trumpet...

Sometimes people ask me if I compose at the piano, which I do too. But the trumpet gives me an insight. Because technically when you're improvising... An improviser is also an orchestrator in a sense because he or she is using the instrument as a vehicle for ideas, so you're translating sound images into actual instrumental techniques, which are unique to each instrument.

AAJ: As arranging involves so many instruments, voices, colors, how do you make those choices?

TH: That's the hardest thing—the choices. I guess it would be the same for a writer to choose the right word. Or for a painter to chose the right color. There are also shades of meaning, shades of color. It has to be right. But it's basically related to feelings, what I feel is right. It can be a split-second decision or it can take a long time.

AAJ: Over the years, many excellent, well-known artists, orchestras and big bands have chosen to record and perform the compositions you've written. Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
, for instance, has said that he really enjoyed playing your "Because I Love You" (on his CD For My Father") and that he highly regards your playing and writing.

TH: He's one of my all-time idols. I remember something he said in an interview, where he says that receiving compliments make him try to work harder to live up to his compliments and I try to do that too. Whenever I receive high praise I try to work harder to deserve it.

AAJ: In addition to making at least two dozen albums, performing hundreds of concerts around the world and leading your own groups, you've worked for or played with many distinguished musicians and bandleaders. Can you comment on what that was like for you? What you learned?



TH: One thing I learned from Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
was how the soloist can interact with the rhythm section and using spaces as a way to bring out the rhythm section as... the note choices that the trumpeter/soloist makes can interact with the rhythm section, giving them more freedom to be conversational so it becomes more of a group statement... You can choose notes that mean something. (When playing with his own group, he is affected by this idea. "The main thing is the time feel, whether it creates a lift. Gives me an uplifting feeling. I like to float on top of the rhythm.")

Woody Herman
Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band/orchestra
taught me about the relationship between jazz and classical. Igor Stravinsky once wrote a piece for his orchestra called "The Ebony Concerto" and Woody emphasized that Stravinsky was a "nice person and a groovy cat." That group was like a school. I had a lot of fun playing with Woody Herman. I had worked in San Francisco and got some recognition but when I played with him I got more recognition on the East Coast. Also, when I was with Woody he played one of my arrangements at a rehearsal, which was nice of him. "Sao Paulo," one of the first big band compositions and arrangements I wrote (up to then Harrell's sole opportunity to hear it performed was by a big band in school).

And working for Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
... That was a dream come true. He was a great teacher... Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
was a fantastic musician too.

AAJ: Now that you've mentioned a dream, actually, instead of going to history... What other things would you like to do. You've done so many things. And it sounds like you're doing quite a bit of them now and coming up. What would you like to do more of. Or something different. Is there another dream you have that you'd like to do?

TH: I want to be able to control my thoughts... And be a better person.

AAJ: I wish more people wanted to be better people.

TH: Right now I feel like being a good person is more important than being a good musician. Of course they're related... but...

AAJ: You mentioned earlier that you feel that musicians are good people, in general?

TH: Yeah, I learned about being a good person from musicians.

AAJ: Can you give me an example who from or what you learned?

TH: John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
. Practically every musician I've talked to... the better they are as musicians, the better they are as people.

Selected Discography:

Tom Harrell, Aurora (Total) (Adamo-Pinnacle, 1976)

Phil Woods Quintet, Integrity (Red, 1984)

Jim Hall, These Rooms (featuring Tom Harrell) (Denon, 1988)

Tom Harrell, Upswing (Chesky, 1993)

Tom Harrell, Live at the Village Vanguard (Bluebird, 2001)

Tom Harrell, Prana Dance (HighNote, 2008)

Photo Credit

Dario Villa


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