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Tom Harrell: Boundless Beauty


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AAJ: It sounds from what you've said and some of the projects you've taken on that you appreciate "European classical" music?

TH: I look at jazz being influenced by European classical music. If you study the music you can see that there's really no separation between European classical music and American classical music [jazz]. Because if you look at the work of Duke Ellington, his music was classical in scope. All the great composers of American classical music—jazz music—their work is on a par with European classical. There's an intertwining of influences. Debussy was influenced by jazz music, and Ravel.

AAJ: Are those composers you listen to when you're not working?

TH: I'm always working... That's the way I look at it. I'm always thinking about music.

I try to relate to sounds in a musical way. I love the beauty of sound. When I'm peaceful... I guess I'm thinking about music more when I'm peaceful, when I'm not worried about "the conscious." I have trouble relating to life on a conscious level.

AAJ: Your work, it can't all be inspiration? Must be hard at times?

TH: When you're composing, there's an element of drudgery too. There's a lot of manual labor... Someone once called it "backbreaking."

AAJ: And practicing, as a player?

TH: Definitely is difficult. But it can be a lot of fun too. When you think of new ideas and working on them... Practicing I write things down. Ideas and I can think of melodies when I'm playing trumpet...

Sometimes people ask me if I compose at the piano, which I do too. But the trumpet gives me an insight. Because technically when you're improvising... An improviser is also an orchestrator in a sense because he or she is using the instrument as a vehicle for ideas, so you're translating sound images into actual instrumental techniques, which are unique to each instrument.

AAJ: As arranging involves so many instruments, voices, colors, how do you make those choices?

TH: That's the hardest thing—the choices. I guess it would be the same for a writer to choose the right word. Or for a painter to chose the right color. There are also shades of meaning, shades of color. It has to be right. But it's basically related to feelings, what I feel is right. It can be a split-second decision or it can take a long time.

AAJ: Over the years, many excellent, well-known artists, orchestras and big bands have chosen to record and perform the compositions you've written. Hank Jones, for instance, has said that he really enjoyed playing your "Because I Love You" (on his CD For My Father") and that he highly regards your playing and writing.

TH: He's one of my all-time idols. I remember something he said in an interview, where he says that receiving compliments make him try to work harder to live up to his compliments and I try to do that too. Whenever I receive high praise I try to work harder to deserve it.

AAJ: In addition to making at least two dozen albums, performing hundreds of concerts around the world and leading your own groups, you've worked for or played with many distinguished musicians and bandleaders. Can you comment on what that was like for you? What you learned?

TH: One thing I learned from Miles Davis was how the soloist can interact with the rhythm section and using spaces as a way to bring out the rhythm section as... the note choices that the trumpeter/soloist makes can interact with the rhythm section, giving them more freedom to be conversational so it becomes more of a group statement... You can choose notes that mean something. (When playing with his own group, he is affected by this idea. "The main thing is the time feel, whether it creates a lift. Gives me an uplifting feeling. I like to float on top of the rhythm.")

Woody Herman taught me about the relationship between jazz and classical. Igor Stravinsky once wrote a piece for his orchestra called "The Ebony Concerto" and Woody emphasized that Stravinsky was a "nice person and a groovy cat." That group was like a school. I had a lot of fun playing with Woody Herman. I had worked in San Francisco and got some recognition but when I played with him I got more recognition on the East Coast. Also, when I was with Woody he played one of my arrangements at a rehearsal, which was nice of him. "Sao Paulo," one of the first big band compositions and arrangements I wrote (up to then Harrell's sole opportunity to hear it performed was by a big band in school).

And working for Horace Silver... That was a dream come true. He was a great teacher... Dizzy Gillespie was a fantastic musician too.

AAJ: Now that you've mentioned a dream, actually, instead of going to history... What other things would you like to do. You've done so many things. And it sounds like you're doing quite a bit of them now and coming up. What would you like to do more of. Or something different. Is there another dream you have that you'd like to do?

TH: I want to be able to control my thoughts... And be a better person.


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