As the business of music makes the wobbly transition from unified collections of songs to individual tracks as the primary currency of recorded music, jazz continues to embrace the increasingly antiquated format of the album to great effect. Such is the case with trumpeter Tom Harrell's Light On, a bonafide collection of compositions and performances that are conspicuously unified, and an open challenge to the notion of "album as anachronism" in the digital age. This collection of songs was meant to be swallowed whole.
All the ingredients for a fine "album" are thereintricate but accessible melodies, potent and personal improvisations both individually and collectively, even Rudy Van Gelder, one of the prime architects of the art of the long player, whose touch on the faders brings together familiar sounds and textures that evoke the past, yet present music that is decidedly modern.
Harrell's playing is typically relaxed and confident, and that confidence and capability is also evident in his selection of sidemen. This group has just the right balance of musical personalities that function as a cohesive unit without sacrificing each musician's distinct identity.
All nine of the compositions heard here are Harrell's, each with memorable and infectious melodic hooks and satisfying harmonic structures. "Skylife," with it's subtle but assertive funky groove is probably the best example of how Harrell is able to create music that is simultaneously accessible and intricate. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffrey delivers an arresting solo so typical of his stellar performances on every track, and Danny Grissett's touch on Fender Rhodes brings a warmth and blithe fluency that makes highly crafted lines go down easier than one might expect.
Indeed, Escoffrey consistently attracts the most attention. His dense and plaintive phrasing contrasts effectively with Harrell's soft spoken interjections and pleasing tone. The saxophonist's dizzying work on both takes of "Va, the wry wit and virtuosity on tracks like "Contrary Mary," the up-tempo "Gronk" and "Blue Caribe" reveals an arresting, inventive voice of considerable skill and emotional depth, delivering provocative and complex lines with a highly distinctive flavor.
"Nights at Catalonia" evokes the exoticism of a Horace Silver composition and presents Harrell's sound at its best, with a typically sparse and introverted exploration that deepens the mystery hidden in the subtle rhythmic pulse so ably created by drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. "Bad Stuff" presents that rhythm section unleashed, as the quintet engages in a spirited, swinging romp.
Light On is among the rarest of jazz releases that is sure to please the casual listener as well as the hardcore aficionado. Both will be swept up in the intensity and precision of the performances, and both will walk away humming the same melodies that linger stubbornly in memory and stick to the ribs. This is music that invites the listener along for the ride and rewards those who take the trouble to climb aboard. Like the very best of jazz, Harrell's quintet seeks to communicate and illuminate, and succeeds handsomely in doing both.
Va; Sky Life; Contrary Mary; Fountain; Nights at Catalonia; The Gronk; Architect of Time; Bad Stuff; Blue Caribe; Va (reprise).
Tom Harrell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett: piano and Fender Rhodes; Ugonna Okegwo: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.
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