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My Conversation with Tom Harrell

Photo credit: Tom Harrell's Facebook Page

AAJ Staff By

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The feeling among the young musicians is very encouraging, as well as musicians of all ages. There's a real respect for tradition and a shared interest in creating new kinds of music and extending the tradition.
We rummaged through our extensive pre-database archive and discovered a May 1999 interview with Tom Harrell, who celebrated his 75th birthday this past week. We published two other interviews with Tom: November 2003 and May 2009.

AAJ: Do you recall when you were first exposed to jazz?

TH: Well, I was fortunate that my parents had a really great library of music, of all kinds of music, including jazz. I was exposed at a really young age to really classic recordings, like the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. I heard the Duke Ellington The 1952 Seattle Concert record when I was pretty young, then I heard the album Live at Newport when I was seven. I started to study trumpet when I was eight years old. I was always wanting to improvise and play jazz, and I was also interested, well, I still am, in pop music too. I would always try to improvise even right when I first started trying to play as a boy. Gradually, I learned chord changes and how to play them. The players back in junior high school, seventh and eighth grade, I met some really great musicians who were really young and pretty advanced. They turned me on to some really good jazz, a lot of recordings. There were some programs on the radio that I learned a lot from. I heard for the first time some really important recordings. Listening to KJAZ I got more and more exposed to music from New York and Los Angeles, as well as Chicago, the spectrum of jazz. It gave me a good grounding, different ways of approaching music.

AAJ: Why did you choose to play the trumpet?

TH: I always was attracted to the sound, because it's so different. The special quality that's the trumpet. A really beautiful sound capable of so many kinds of moods and expression. I guess all instruments are capable of wide expression but I liked the fact it was an extroverted kind of instrument. At the same time I was working in graphic art, but I guess I shied away from graphic art as a career because you spend so much time alone. At least that was my impression at the time. I wanted to play music, because even though you spend long hours practicing by yourself, the trumpet goes along with the camaraderie. I mean, when you listen to great trumpet players you hear speech patterns. It can create a lot of happiness. You could play the melodies of the songs. I also wanted to play saxophone too. I practiced it, but not much. I played French horn for a while too. That complemented my trumpet playing. But I would still like to study the saxophone. If you listen to saxophone players, some of the melodic ideas can be incorporated with trumpet playing. Also the converse is true, you can play trumpet ideas on the saxophone.

AAJ: Is practicing important to developing those ideas?

TH: It's very important. It's of the utmost importance. As with all instruments you have to keep your chops. You have to go through your embouchure, and also your motor skills, and your fingering. So you have to really work on it everyday. It's a good idea to play chop exercises as much as I can to keep the muscles in shape. It's kind of like calisthenics. In the sixties, I was working out of a book that really emphasized the calisthenics. I'm going to try to use more elements of that book. It showed me how to gradually work up into the higher registers. It is really true that sometimes the higher and lower registers really complement each other. They also emphasized playing the pedal toes, the lowest notes possible on an instrument. When you do that you are actually helping yourself to condition yourself to play the high notes too. Plus, you have to work on the middle registers too. Those are the three registers that are crucial. There's a group of exercises that I work on. I guess it's like working out if you were doing weight training. You have to kind of gradually build up. You have to be careful not to do too much or too little. It takes a lot of self control. I might feel really good, but I might have to stop for common sense reasons. I might have to stop so I don't blow out my chops for the next day. Pacing is really important. To give yourself enough leeway and to give yourself enough of a margin to be able to have enough chops for the following day. You should try to gradually try to improve each day. It makes life meaningful to try to improve in some way. Each day I will try to keep learning.

AAJ: Speaking of learning, you played with Horace Silver from 1973-1978. How did he influence your development and outlook on music?

TH: He was a great influence on me. He still is and always will be. I'm very grateful that I got the chance to work with him. He is a fantastic musician and a wonderful person. I'm still playing the lessons I have learned from him of living in terms of the spirit. He's such a great example for everyone. He works really hard. I learned so much musically. He keeps evolving musically. I learned about writing for quintets as well as for larger groups. One thing I really admire about him is that he has really great attention to detail. Every note that he writes is meaningful and everything makes sense. He's always telling a story. He's the same way as a person. He lives the way he speaks. He talks about living in a spiritual way and he practices what he preaches. I really admire that. I have been trying to find a way to live in a spiritual way. It's really not easy.

AAJ: Your new recording "The Art of the Rhythm" is based upon Latin rhythms. Did you start out with that in mind?

TH: Originally, we were going to do two rhythm sections at once, and then we decided to do three recording sessions with three rhythm sections. I decided to do one with an Afro-Brazilian rhythm section, one session was with Duduka Da Fonseca, Valtinho Anastacio on percussion, Duduka on drums, Romero Lubambo on guitar, David Finck on bass, and then there was another recording session with Adam Cruz on percussion and Milton Cardona on percussion, and Natalie Cushman on percussion, and Leon Parker on drums, Andy Gonzalez on bass, and Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and then there was another recording session with Leon Parker on drums, and Ugonna on bass. So we tried different things, but the focus was to explore the relationship between Afro-Brazilian rhythms and rhythms that come from Africa. There is a lot of parallel between the rhythms. It's interesting to combine elements of the different rhythms, but also try to retain and have respect for the authenticity of the rhythms. There are infinite possibilities for exploration rhythmically as well as melody, so it's really exciting. One of my main goals is to keep pushing myself to explore in ways of writing and playing, stimulate myself to play differently and hopefully stimulate the other improvisers too. To find new enjoyable ways of playing, by creating new environments.

AAJ: How did you choose the players and what qualities did you look for?

TH: The interaction is really important. I try to select players that have played together and share my love finding new ways of playing. It worked out great because the interaction was really beautiful, and the horn players and everyone really created beautiful statements. All the players played really inspiring music. I got to try some things that I have never tried before using pairs of instruments like using acoustic guitar and electronic guitar together on one song. It was really exciting. I knew that a lot of the players had played together, so the interaction was really great. It was really a lot of fun.

AAJ: Where do you generate all of your inspiration from?

TH: I think the inspiration comes from everything, which is really wonderful. All of life experience, and naturally, listening to music, all kinds of music. Music is maybe the most direct way to become inspired, and playing with other musicians, the interaction. I can also get inspiration from visual experiences that might give me a certain mood or a certain emotion or a perspective that could be translated into music or even a social interaction experience might make me think of or give me a mood that I can convey in music.

AAJ: What are you listening to now?

TH: I have been listening to some albums. I like the Milton Cardona album.

AAJ: What do you do to relax?

TH: It is important to relax too and I try to go for walks or try to do pushups. Also, practicing itself is relaxing.

AAJ: Are there musicians that you would like to work with?

TH: I'm lucky, I've gotten to work with a lot of musicians that I've wanted to work with, and in the future, there are some musicians that I haven't worked with year that I would like to work with. I'd like to do more things with strings, as well as with percussion, African percussion and Middle Eastern music. Indian music too. I'd like to explore the sonic resources. Also delve into the avant-garde, using different types of sound from everyday life. Maybe use different types of electronics, synthesizers, explore the resources of the recording studio. Explore the techniques that are available in the recording studio.

AAJ: Are there any young musicians that you are impressed with?

TH: There's a great renaissance of improvised music and creativity. I'm really impressed by Nicholas Payton. I've also gotten to know Tim Hagans, Roy Hargrove, Wallace Roney, and Wynton Marsalis as well as other players on other instruments. There is a common interest in creating new kinds of music.

AAJ: What is your philosophy?

TH: I think the basic philosophy is to try to do something that's fun. To feel good about it, as long as you don't hurt anyone. Of course, that's maybe hard to do right now. As long as you do everything out of love. You can't be blind to the world. You have to be aware of what's happening around you. Sometimes you have to protect yourself. I always try to trust people. I always try to be open to people. You always have to keep your guard up too. You should always protect yourself. I always try to keep a positive attitude. As long as you thing loving thoughts and do everything with a positive intent. As an artist you try the best you can in creating what you do. One of the wonderful things is as artists you have a beautiful relationship with the audience because while you're creating something that is enjoyable to create the audience can enjoy it too. So you have a mutual form of love. I feel very blessed that I am able to play music that I enjoy and hear other people enjoy it too.

AAJ: If you were not playing jazz, in terms of a career path, what would you like to pursue?

TH: I have other interests, like graphic art, but I feel really inhibited in graphic art at this point. I used to pursue it more a long time ago. Of course, you can do bother, a lot of musicians pursue graphic art as well as music, as their first profession. It would be a great outlet. It's great to have other outlets. Also, writing words, I used to do that too and that is a beautiful outlet and a beautiful form of expression too. I get more inhibited about writing words and doing graphic art. I see these things out of the spirit of fun. As long as your intent is positive and you don't hurt anyone then it's good to share experiences with other people in creating works of art, whether it's music, or graphic art, or words. It's a way of sharing love with other people. It's healthy. It's very valid.

AAJ: What projects do you have planned for the very near future?

TH: I think I might be doing a quartet project in the near future, which I am looking forward to. I have got a lot of material and additional material in the works. It's good to keep writing, because there is always so many, there's always new forms of expression available.

AAJ: What is your musical goal?

TH: I guess every artist's goal would be perfection. That's the ultimate goal. To create a perfect work of art. I think sometimes it's achieved. Another way of looking at it is to create a work of art where you could create unity with God. A feeling of serenity, like some of the Asian cultures. Many of their activities are around achieving unity with the infinite. I think that's a really wonderful goal. You can see that in John Coltrane and Horace [Silver] too. When you put spirituality above everything, and you try to create works that create a union, a way for the listener to achieve union with God and experience serenity. It could also be part of creating music for meditation. There are different levels because it doesn't have to be, it can still be in a spirit of fun. I think you can still be cheerful and use humor too. Spirituality can be a part of daily life, but you can still be down to earth. It's a beautiful goal to try and practice it.

AAJ: How do you feel about all the recognition and accolades that you have been receiving?

TH: It's really a stimulant because it makes me realize that I should work hard and that I really have an obligation or responsibility to be true to myself and pursue the direction that I believe in. But it does take a lot of work. I am very grateful for the recognition and support. It gives me a lot of hope. I do have a responsibility to use the gift I have. I think everyone has a gift we can use and we all have that opportunity. Everyone has something special and unique that they can use and we can all be creative in what we do.

AAJ: Is the state of jazz today encouraging to you?

TH: Well, it's very encouraging, because there are a lot of really exciting things happening, a lot of melodic exploration and in ways of the intervals, melodic intervals. The feeling among the young musicians is very encouraging, as well as musicians of all ages. There's a real respect for tradition and a shared interest in creating new kinds of music and extending the tradition. Creating and finding new pathways. It gives me a lot of humility because I hear what people are doing and I can see the new avenues opening up and it gives me a lot of inspiration as well as humility because the level was so high of creativity. I want to try to play things that compliment the new kinds of directions that are out there.

AAJ: Who were your influences?

TH: Pretty much everyone. I like to listen to the young players as well as players from older generations. As I grew up I started by listening to Louis Armstrong. I still think he was a great master. He pretty much said it all. I listen to him now and he's incredible, he sounds so fresh. His feeling is so overwhelming. Then you move on to Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy really opened up a lot worlds too. Roy Eldridge has a great feeling and really created new worlds too. Freddie Hubbard was a beautiful player. I was really influenced by him too, and still am. There's a beautiful history of trumpet playing where you can see everyone was influenced. You can see the tree of trumpet playing where you can see the inner connections between the beautiful styles. You can combine different styles. Like Jaki Byard would play, created a style of playing where like the pan stylistic approach where he would play different styles. Like a history of jazz in one person. I think in a way all players do that. In a way they pay homage to their influences. Like if you listen to great players, it may be stated directly or you might get a brief glimpse. It might only be one note but you can tell they listened to a given player. It's beautiful that so many great voices have been created by players on each instrument. It's great because you can create your own and sort of redefine your instrument in your own way. No matter how hard you try you will never sound exactly like someone else. You might try to but it's going to sound like you. I think it's good to listen to a lot of players. I always try to do that, listen to a wide range of players so I wouldn't always sound like I was imitating only one person. Also, so I could learn the lesson s of a lot of players.

AAJ: Aside from the trumpet, what other instruments interest you?

TH: I love to play the piano. I think a lot of trumpet players also play piano. Like Dizzy played really great piano and Freddie Hubbard was a great pianist too. You sort of have to play piano to approach the music. Jazz is so complex harmonically that you have to study. It's pretty important to study a chord instrument, either piano or guitar, to be able to absorb the harmonies. I would also like to play the saxophone and drums. Drums is great. There's several really well known horn players that also play drums. That can really free up your rhythmic conception. Rhythm is one of the earliest words and it is maybe one of the main frontiers of music now because it makes the music acceptable with the groove component. Harmony and melody are frontiers too, but rhythm is the most direct element and maybe the most important. There's so many rhythmic choices now that are available, ways of combining rhythms when you play the drums.

AAJ: Do you prefer pianist standards or your own compositions?

TH: I love most standards, but it's nice to do songs that haven't been done too much, or it's also good to do songs that have been played a lot, with a new arrangement, and that gives that audience something. It makes them more durable to the audience. They're maybe more familiar to the song or to the lyrics and so they can relate to it more directly and also appreciate the fresh approach to the standard. It is also nice to play the song the way it was written to, but I like to do re-arrangements.

AAJ: In that regard, how important is it to play your own music?

TH: It's nice because it gives me a lot of freedom, that I am free to take liberties, as many liberties as I want with the material. I love to play standards too, or do a mixture of standards and my own music. If I play a song that I have recently written, it does give me a kind of a lift to do that and helps me play and find the things that I'm looking for in my improvising the new approaches that I'm trying to get closer to.

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