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Tom Harrell's Democratic Music

AAJ Staff By

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Submitted on behalf of Anthony Gallo

As a music critic and psychiatrist-in-training, the opportunity to see Tom Harrell with his quintet in concert was one that I could not easily pass up. I had heard stories of his schizophrenia getting the best of him on stage at times, but there was something about a gifted musician, a “genius”, as he has been called by many peers, with such a potentially disabling mental disorder that lured me to the show.
The group, consisting of Mr. Harell doubling on trumpet and flugelhorn, a saxophonist doubling on tenor and soprano, guitar, bass, and drums, was an interesting amalgam at first sight. All of the musicians were younger than him, most appearing in their twenties. Three men were Black, and the guitarist appeared to be of Spanish descent. A major focuses of Jazz by Ken Burns was the fact that jazz music is an American art form due to its inherent democratic nature and multiculturalism. This band appeared to be the epitome of that model, and it served the music well. I could not help but to appreciate an Ellingtonian mood to the performance. Mr. Harrell’s compositional and arranging techniques are impressive, and I was aware of only one composition that had a 32 bar format. Most pieces had complex heads, introductions, transitional fragments, that always kept the music interesting. Also, his compositions appropriate other forms of music. With the presence of his guitarist, who doubled on electric guitar as well as classical, and his use of flugelhorn (think Miles’ Sketches of Spain), Andalusia was never far from consciousness.
Mr. Harrell, of course, was the most adept at interpreting his music. His phrasing is very much a composite of both Clifford Brown and Chet Baker’s sound and phrasing; it appears that he has been able to get past a Miles reference despite the use of flugelhorn. His playing, mostly on flugelhorn, was always lyrical, and did a tremendous job avoiding cliché and keeping his solos fresh. He was able to play well at both up-tempo and slower pieces, and I never got the impression that he was just playing stock licks. There was definitely a quality of his playing that suggested very thought out phrasing in the moment and for the moment.
The other members of the band, though significantly younger, were no less exciting. The saxophonist, as stated earlier, doubled on tenor and soprano. His use of the soprano was not entirely original, vacillating between proclivities towards Coltrane at times, Shorter at others. His work on tenor was very fresh; there was one solo in particular that built up so well, dynamically and thematically, that I could not help but to think he envisions making love while soloing. Needless to say that particular solo garnered the most applause for the evening, surpassing Harrell himself.

The guitarist provided one more element to this stew, and served Harrell’s music well. His work on electric guitar did not speak much; he was more than capable on the instrument but was lackluster. The classical guitar was another story. His comping and soloing style changed instantly and significantly as soon as he picked up the nylon-stringed instrument, as Spanish flares appeared in his playing. His comping styles used elements of strumming, finger-picking, and harmonics, and it is no wonder why Mr. Harrell chose this man to play his music.

Lastly, the bassist and drummer should be noted. They were the type of players that you hardly noticed were there, but if they were not, you would surely miss them. The bassist always swung, and primarily used ostinato figures for support. The drummer used a small kit, in both actual size and number of pieces, but with the sound he was able to get, one would think he was playing Billy Cobham’s set.

I was working with a group of schizophrenic patients recently that I was very tempted to take to this show, primarily as an inspiration to them and what they are capable of overcoming. As I thought more about it, anyone who questions his or her own abilities should witness Mr. Harrell performing. His disease is a crippling one- at times he is said to have “fallen apart” on stage. But his playing, with such beauty and expressiveness, overcomes any boundaries his disease might pose.


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