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A Fireside Chat with Tom Harrell

By Published: November 14, 2003

TH: It's true. They do have different sounds. The sounds create new and different approaches to melody, although you can play the same melody on each instrument. It would come out differently on each instrument because the flugelhorn has a more rounder sound, but I guess my approach to the trumpet is sort of like flugelhorn in a way because the equipment I use gets a dark sound, but still, the trumpet can have a brightness too. So you can cut through and create more excitement with the trumpet, playing the high register more, whereas on the flugelhorn, it's really more well suited to the middle register. It might lead the player into playing more longer note values and I guess in a way, more melodically in a way, although you can play really melodically on trumpet of course too. It's kind of like you're orchestrating your ideas for two different instruments. They had two different personalities.

FJ: Let's talk about your new album on RCA Victor, Time's Mirror, your initial large ensemble release.

TH: Well, it gives you a lot of options. It sort of leads you into writing full arrangements of a song where you would write music for the large group from the beginning of the arrangement to the end of the arrangement, whereas with a quartet or quintet, you might leave more room for improvisation by the rhythm section and the horn players. You can apply some of the lessons of big bands to small groups too. You can have long arrangements for quartet or quintet with interludes and choruses and extended endings. That's one of the things I learned from Horace because he was such a master at writing for quintet as well as for larger groups. And also with a big band, you can apply some of the techniques of a small group because the rhythm section reacts to the soloists in a way that they would if they played in a quintet. The background for the solos could be still added to that and so you can have the freedom of a small group and the structure of a larger group.

FJ: The sheer logistics of a large ensemble, traveling and lodging are mammoth.

TH: Well, it's hard in terms of people's schedules. I'm lucky that when I played at the Vanguard that everyone on the record was available to do the performances. I'm lucky to have such a great group too at the Jazz Bakery. I'm fortunate to play with such great musicians. Everyone is enthusiastic about the music.

FJ: Do you prefer writing for a small group or large ensemble?

TH: Well, they are both wonderful vehicles. Although, I admit that I have not worked as a leader as much with a big band so it's really an exciting new direction for me, but I also love playing with a quintet because of the spontaneity that you have and also if you play a song that is free blowing, you really have a lot of freedom with a small group, although you could do a big band piece with free blowing sections too. The small group can give you an intimacy and the chamber group kind of concept. Whereas with a big band, it's more like an orchestra. Well, it is an orchestra. You can have the option of creating like really large masses of sound, which is really exciting too. You can use the small group within the big band for contrasts. They're both really great mediums for expression. When you have a large horn section, you can write a lot of control over the voicings, although with a quintet, you can write up the voicings for the chord instrument, like the piano. The voicings play a large part in the sound of the group.

FJ: Will you return to recording with a small group, perhaps a quartet or a quintet the next time around?

TH: Well, maybe. I'm still planning. I'd love to do another small group album, but I'd also like to do some more things with larger groups. I have some new music that I've written. It could be with a small group or with a larger group. I guess the main focus I have is to try and do things that I haven't done before.

FJ: With the daily health issues (Harrell is a diagnosed schizophrenic) that you cope with, how much of a struggle is it for you to prepare to just play?

TH: I guess I do have the condition I have. As long as I take the medicine, it keeps things on an even keel. I always look forward to performing. The acceptance by the audience has been wonderful. It gives me a reason to keep going. I'm really grateful that my music reaches people. That's one of my goals, for the music to communicate to people and for them to feel the emotions that I feel, in terms of the music. I'm blessed that I can play music that I love to play and people enjoy it. It really makes everything worthwhile.

FJ: In the mist of this holiday season, what is your Christmas wish?

TH: Peace on earth. That's the most important thing.

FJ: What records do you deem as classics?

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