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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.

FRED JUNG: 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.

FJ: 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.

FJ: 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.

FJ: 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.

FJ: 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.

FJ: 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.

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


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