A Fireside Chat with Tom Harrell


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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.
Tom Harrell is a blessing. Warmth and kindness oozes from his horn playing and from his compositions. His latest for RCA Victor, Time's Mirror, is a big band recording, quite a departure for the trumpeter. I caught up with Harrell in the midst of a nationwide tour to promote his new album. It is an intimate portrait of a "genius" as Horace Silver put it, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Tom Harrell: My pleasure. My parents had great records and I would listen. I wanted to play the trumpet and so I started studying trumpet when I was eight years old. I was interested in trying to improvise. I remember I didn't know that much about chords but I wanted to improvise so I would play with other children in the neighborhood. I remember I would organize the group and then try to improve. Then I started to try to learn more about chords and harmony so I could play chords and also I was playing in ensembles in school playing European classical music. But I still wanted to improvise. Then when I was in seventh and eighth grade, there was a group that played jazz, a big band, so I formed my own group then to try to play arrangements. That group started up with three people and then we added members.

AAJ Who were your influences at the time?

TH: The first influence was Louis Armstrong for me and then I started listening to Roy Eldridge and then I listened to Dizzy and Clifford Brown. I heard Clifford Brown when I was listening to the radio in the eighth grade. I tried to maintain his style as well as Blue Mitchell and Clark Terry. Every time I heard someone and I enjoyed their playing, I would begin emulating their style. It wasn't really a conscious effort. I would find myself emulating their style or sometimes I would write down transcriptions or maybe it was a fragment of a solo. Also, I've been influenced by saxophone players. I would try to transcribe some solos by saxophone players as well as trumpet players. The two instruments are kind of intertwined in a way.

AAJ What was it about Clifford Brown?

TH: The main thing was the work and the feeling, such a positive sound and his melodic sense. It was overwhelming to listen to him and such a feeling of joy that was expressed. He has a real full sound.

AAJ Let's touch on your time in the Horace Silver Quintet. You became a member of a formidable fraternity of trumpet players, Blue Mitchell and Woody Shaw

TH: Thank you. It was an incredible experience, working in his group. I learned so much from him. I'm still learning from him. One thing I learned was his incredible sense of direction and confidence in everything that he did and does. When he'd come into rehearsal and when he would bring in new music, it would be so totally positive. Like sometimes, I played with composers and they apologized. Sometimes people lose their self-confidence, but he always conveyed a feeling of confidence, but it was not in an overbearing way. He's really a friendly, warm person. Everything that he said would be positive. You could see how his music and his life were part of the same thing. He's very spiritual. He lives his music and it's all part of a unity.

AAJ Horace has a healthy sense of humor.

TH: Yeah, he definitely does. That's one of the first things that drew me to his music like for instance his titles and the feeling of humor in his playing when he uses musical quotations to tell a story.

AAJ And your collaboration with Joe Lovano?

TH: He's a great leader too. It's really wonderful playing with him and playing his music. He's very focused too with his music and he lives his music. He told me one day when we would talk about music, he says like things he wanted to play and he wants the music to be loved and do things that have never been done before. Of course, Horace has done things that has never been done before too. They are both great innovators. I think that's the most stimulating thing about both of them. They have created new kinds of music in their playing already.

AAJ To benefit the persons who are not musicians, beyond the obvious appearance, what are the differences between the trumpet and the flugelhorn?

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.

AAJ 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.

AAJ 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.

AAJ 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.

AAJ 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.

AAJ 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.

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

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

AAJ What records do you deem as classics?

TH: Well, I love the Birth of the Cool (Blue Note) by Miles Davis and Sketches of Spain (Columbia) by Miles and Gil Evans. I love the Impressions (Impulse) album by John Coltrane, Change of The Century (Atlantic) by Ornette Coleman, and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse) by Charles Mingus.

AAJ What is jazz to Tom Harrell?

TH: It's the ultimate expression of freedom. It's like a beautiful marriage of many kinds of influences of the 20th century.

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