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Tom Harrell: Boundless Beauty

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AAJ: Can you give an example of something from your travels that directly influenced you musically?

TH: You do sometimes experience impressions while you're traveling, touring that can come out in the music. When I was in North Africa I heard musical scales in a new way, when they were performed. That gave me new insight, another perspective. Also the way the North African scales influence Spanish music. I got a different feeling... The scales are vibrant and the ways of performing them convey deep emotion. I think that "cry," the element you hear in different parts of the world (for example in vocal techniques), from the folk tradition of the music, the deep ethnic roots of the music, from Western Africa and the blues (is moving). All art I think comes from a deep folk tradition.

AAJ: Many listeners and jazz lovers really enjoy hearing someone who plays with some element of deep feeling. But sometimes it seems that some musicians strive to show off what they can do technically—and that, for them, it's more about that, sequences or notes and pyrotechnics, than telling us something about themselves, about being a human being, whatever...

TH: That's the ultimate goal (playing with true feeling). Although Coltrane showed that you can do everything. He showed that you can play with a deep spiritual involvement and also be a great innovator and also reach a wide audience.

AAJ: Making it not so simple to generalize about music and musicianship?

TH: You really can't put it into words. Poets, that's what writers try to do—put the ultimate experience into words. But music of course can transcend words. Coltrane wrote a beautiful prayer, statement on "A Love Supreme." He was using words too...

AAJ: Since we're talking about words. You have such interesting evocative titles for many of your compositions. They do seem to reflect themes and feelings in your pieces. Music isn't about words, of course, but how do you come up with those? Many musicians say they have trouble naming songs.

TH: Usually I come up with the title. Sometimes they're suggested by other people. Many wife Angela came up with some of the beautiful titles. I do think it's important to relate titles to the songs themselves. Sometimes a title is suggested by a phrase in a melody. Or sometimes it's also conveyed by the emotions of a song. I wrote a song recently I called "Eternal Spring" because that was the feeling I had. I feel like Robert Frost once said, "Sometimes I entertain great hopes." And I keep that quotation in my mind. And what [guru Paramahansa] Yogananda said, "Transcend even this..."

I've been in stages in my life when I thought that I was receiving a lot of negative criticism, comments and I went into a time of chronic depression but I always hold on to what a friend once told me, that even if the world turns against you, you know, as long as you retain the feeling of hope, or as long as you believe in yourself, that's the most important thing. And I think that's one of the most valuable things to convey in music is a 'feeling of hope.' I guess you can even say 'optimism.' Because many things can make you negative but there is hope now because there is a new President..."

AAJ: We are in a difficult world. I don't know if things were ever easy but certainly if you follow what's going on the headlines, the economy... But that's always been an American thing, hasn't it? No matter how tough things get, there's possibility for change? Perhaps that relates to jazz music, too—something that's always changing, evolving?

TH: That's true. Because of the freedom of the music people are always going ahead, moving toward something they can bring to the music, to create something new."

AAJ: Can you cite something that helps you find new ways to create your music?

TH: 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... But then, I try to keep studying. It really helps to look at other people's music, to listen to other people's scores and recordings. I don't want to directly imitate people but if I do approach a style, I try to bring something of my own to it."

AAJ: What or who are you listening to lately?

TH: I've been listening to some European classical music. I haven't been listening to many records of American classical music—jazz—because I have been afraid that I would imitate someone. But I did hear, when we were traveling, some music by Nicholas Payton, which was very impressive... because I could hear how he was doing new things. I think it was pretty new. I don't know the title but it was very good. It was on the same wavelength of what I'm trying to do. As long as someone is doing something new and I can hear how it relates to the tradition, it can be interesting.

I also heard some really nice music by Kevin Hays. Also, when I did a record date abroad I also heard some really good musicians who I played with. I did a record date in France with a great singer, Elisabeth Kontomanou. She recorded something a year ago with the French National Orchestre of Lorraine (for which Harrell wrote symphony orchestra arrangements) and her own trio that will be released next year (2010). I also worked with a vocalist Ann Malcolm. It was with an 8-piece group augmented to a 9-piece. It had a European classical influence. There was great violinist, a beautiful cellist, two really good bass players, some others. (In 2006 Harrell was awarded a Chamber Music America grant for which he wrote and performed new compositions for trumpet and piano; he enjoys doing duos with piano and has done such projects with Mulgrew Miller and the Italian Dado Moroni. Another favorite type of project is writing arrangements for full symphony orchestras.).

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