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Tom Harrell: Boundless Beauty

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I always think about what I'm writing and playing to make it mean something to me now. I'm sort of afraid of standing still...
Tom Harrell is an exceptional musician, known for his exquisite playing on trumpet and flugelhorn as well as for the many lyrical melodies, expressive harmonies and undeniably beautiful music he has composed for some 40 years and, happily, counting. Many famous colleagues, orchestras and big bands have recorded his original compositions and arrangements and among jazz aficionados, Harrell's history is as well known as his gifts. He has distinguished himself as a performer with many renowned groups and legendary artists as well as leading his own groups, including his current quintet which recently released a new CD, Prana Dance (HighNote). He has not often been quoted at length about what is important to him as a musician and as a person. In this rare interview, Harrell speaks for himself about what he is up to today.

All About Jazz: Your wife Angela mentioned you're working on some new compositions for your group today. How's it going?

Tom Harrell: Yeah, I've been writing some new compositions for the quintet. It's exciting. I'm always trying to find new ways to combine the instruments to make something fresh. Something that listeners can enjoy and appreciate.

AAJ: I know you've been playing, composing and arranging music for about 40 years. It must be a challenge to keep coming up with new things over a long career. How do you, as you say, keep things fresh?

TH: I pretty much go by my own feelings-how I relate to the sounds in my mind and I also like to relate it to dance rhythms, which makes it contemporary. I also like to relate things to a kind of meditation, a spiritual kind of awareness...

But I guess the main impetus is rhythm. It's the most important element. And if you can take out a fresh harmony and an interesting kind of melody and a new type of rhythm that gives impact. One of the ways to compose is to see how you can modify, extend your own perceptions of the moment in addition to interlocking these elements in a fresh way.

AAJ: Where do you go for inspiration in terms of those 'dance rhythms'? Is it an instinctive kind of rhythm or you do work from rhythms you've come across, you know, heard before in some other form?

TH: The quintet I have now (saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake) gives me a lot of inspiration and they're really exciting players. I basically try to relate the rhythms to the clave and to African music and Latin music. It has a pattern that I think is related to the universe itself, the 'yin and yang' pattern. I believe that each person's body is like a microcosm of the universe—a kind of universe unto itself—so when people dance and do yoga it reflects that (connecting them to their own natural rhythms as well as to things beyond their individual selves). When I exercise or even just walking I try to find the tempo that feels natural to me. So I can unwind... Whatever I write also has to feel natural to me. I wouldn't want to write something that feels unnatural. At the same time I want to make compositions something other people can relate to.

AAJ: Maybe that's why your work does feel natural, you strive for that. "Organic" is another word that some people have used to describe your compositions. And yet, they feel logical too-musically. What do you think?

TH: Yeah, that's a good word. I try to create a feeling of flowing. That's maybe the hardest thing is to create a feeling of flowing the melodies, the harmonies and rhythms. As a composer, um, I think of it sometimes as a stream-of-consciousness style, the way you (a writer) might tell a story. Basically you tell a story when you compose the same way you would when you're improvising a solo or talking in a conversation too. It's storytelling.

Charlie Parker once said he would try to translate beauty in music. So in a sense I think that's a pretty good description of what a composer does. You can take a daily situation or a feeling you experience during the day, or night, and convey it in notes and rhythms.

AAJ: As you travel a lot for your work, both playing and as a composer/arranger, are you influenced by outside things like places, nature, or weather? Or by more "inner" feelings?

TH: Yes, outside experiences can naturally generate emotions within so it's a good thing to note there is an outside and an inner world for all individuals, all people and all living things. But especially in human beings ... Consciousness I guess is a form of inner awareness so you relate to the outside events.

When I say I'm influenced by feelings—I'd answer yes to your question. Feelings are influenced by outer experiences. That's one of the ways you can experience emotions you've never felt before and also listening to music you can experience new emotions.

That's one of the beautiful things about art is that you can experience emotions you've never experienced before and it can even stimulate you to have new thoughts and new ways of relating to situations. One of the things I found out as I became more and more involved in music is what good people musicians are—they've helped me try to become more sensitive in all areas of life ...

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