Since signing with the HighNote label in 2006, Tom Harrell
has released the most significant CDs in his three decades-plus of recording. It's no coincidence that, for this same period, he has been leading a true dream band of younger players. His previous output for RCA was of the highest quality, particularly Paradise
(2001), a unique date with strings, and the exemplary Live At The Village Vanguard
(2002). Lately, Harrell sounds more intensely engaged than ever, and thoroughly enjoying the constant growth and challenges of his music.
Roman Nights reveals all sorts of tasty quirks and dynamicsdetailed touches that can be initially overlooked, but which make for sustained originality. The tunes become deeper and more absorbing as the disc goes on.
Harrell has said that he feels the trumpet is the closest instrument to the human voice, and, though cellists and tenor saxophonists might disagree, in his hands it becomes so. Newsweek hails him for his melodic genius, the Penguin Guide for harmonic sophistication, and in the liner notes to Roman Nights, he credits Dizzy Gillespie with educating him to the subtleties of rhythm. That's all here, but his compositional facility, as on many of his earlier recordings, is also most noteworthy. These originals are not throwaway tunes; they tackle contemporary hard bop, creating fresh approachestwists and turns that keep the improvisers on their toes.
The up-tempo wisp of a line on "Storm Approaching," punctuated by drummer Johnathan Blake, goes by in a flash before digging into the improvisations. "Let The Children Play," made up of a few minimal riffs, is an infectious song that stays in the memory in a good way. The duo acoustic ballad, "Roman Nights," offers a reflective Harrell, and a particularly gorgeous solo from pianist Danny Grissett.
Yet, it isn't until after these three opening tunes that the CD really takes off. By "Study In Sound," Grissett's Fender Rhodes adds a sense of otherworldly mystery. The floating, absolutely intriguing "Harvest Song" develops out of its own logiclike Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," or, for that matter, Leonard Cohen's "Alexandra Leaving." Throughout, Grissett's solos are marvels of light and touch, revealing a thorough knowledge of the tradition but not sounding at all derivative; he knows his voice.
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is another player who can't be mistaken for anyone else. His often sticky, legato lines compliment a large sound, unlike the tight-embouchure derived tone of many current tenor players. Harrell's secret weapon, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, has been with the trumpeter for over 12 years. Instead of putting down a background of separate, clearly articulated notes, Okewgo provides a broad bottom that seems, say, like Howlin' Wolf's voice, to emanate from the earth itself. It's there and it's a mighty, profound presence, a deep churning force of relentless forward momentum.
Roman Nights is another step forward in sustaining the extraordinary level this band achieved on its first two HighNote releases, Light On (2007) and Prana Dance (2009).