Tom Harrell Quintet
February 11, 2010 (First Set)
My wife arrived early for the show, before me. Most of the nearly sold out crowd had yet to arrive. The maître'd offered her a table in the front. She declined stating, "No thanks, since this is a trumpet player, I'd like to sit further back." She needn't have worried. There was little that was shrill or piercing about Tom Harrell's playing; and that wasn't just because he only played his flugelhorn Thursday night, forsaking his trumpet for the entire set. Harrell's flugelhorn playing not only displayed a warm, mellow tone, but his solos were consistently lyrical and creative. And the same can be said of his compositions.
Harrell was in town for a four night stand with most of his working quintet. This band recorded one of 2009's most highly acclaimed jazz albums, Prana Dance. The only change from the CD personnel was Donald Edwards in place of Jonathan Blake on drums. Wayne Escoffrey on tenor sax joined Harrell on the front line. Ugonna Okegwo with his unique fusion of funk and jazz bass styles held down the bottom with continually creative lines. Danny Grissett completed the quintet on piano and Fender Rhodes. The band recently logged some studio time and the resulting CD, Roman Nights, is scheduled to be released in March.
Not surprisingly (and if fact, delightfully) Thursday night's set sounded much like Prana Dance, a CD of all Harrell compositions. Harrell's tunes achieve that rare balance between intricacy and musicality. The songs are at once intellectually engaging and emotionally satisfying. The result is a whole brain experience. Harrell's solos are equally melodic and well thought out.
Harrell has surrounded himself with like minded players. Escoffrey shares Harrell's lyricism but can also uncork Trane-like sheets of sound with what seems to be little effort. Grissett is a sympathetic accompanist and took a few tasteful solos of his own. One tune, toward the end of the set, was sort of a two chord (mostly) shuffle and Grissett's Rhodes solo sounded something like Ray Charles in his prime.
Harrell suffers from schizophrenia. You would never know simply from listening to his music and watching him play. When he's not playing, however, he stands stock still with his arms down along his sides and his head usually bowed. He looks like an idle marionette seemingly unmoved by the music surrounding him. He obviously has a very introverted personality and he didn't say a word to the audience all evening except to introduce the band at the conclusion of the set. It was clear that even that small amount of public speaking was a struggle for him. Other musicians, notably Miles Davis and Bill Evans, had little interaction with their live audiences and their places in jazz history are well enshrined. Harrell's condition hasn't stopped him from recording many fine jazz records over the years and some of his compositions are bound to become jazz standards in the long run.
For an interview with Harrell and Escoffrey on KUVO while they were in Denver, click on "Media" at tomharrell.com.