Tom Harrell clearly takes a multi-hued approach to his work. The 69-year-old jazz trumpeter’s previous sextet went by the name of Colors of a Dream.
The current quintet with which he will perform at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on January 8 (10 p.m.) is called Colors of a Dream 2.
Grammy nominee Harrell has been one of the most inventive and prolific artists on the global jazz scene for nigh on to half a century. He tried his hand at clarinet before switching to trumpet at the age of eight, making such rapid progress that he was gigging with local bands around the San Francisco Bay Area by age 13.
“I tried to play the clarinet very briefly, but I switched to trumpet.
Trumpet seemed easier to me," explains Harrell. "The technique of the clarinet was daunting to me at the time. I chose the trumpet because I was attracted to the sound."
Harrell was initially drawn to the sultry timbres of one of the leading clarinetists of the early 20th century. That, along with his own early attempts to master the instrument, as well as some ivory tickling, have colored his approach to the trumpet over the years.
“I heard a Sidney Bechet record when I was young, and that influenced me," he recounts. “I think, basically, I try to apply the way music is played on reed instruments to the trumpet. Sax players are pretty much in the forefront in terms of improvising melodies over chord structures, creating new aesthetics. But I’ve also been influenced by piano phrasing."
Harrell got some formal education under his belt, completing a degree in composition at Stanford University in 1969 before setting off to gain some street-level training by touring and recording with pianist Stan Kenton’s envelope-pushing orchestra.
That initial on-the-road foray was subsequently enhanced by a string of high-profile stints with the likes of Woody Herman’s big band; Latin jazz-oriented outfit Azteca; the Horace Silver Quintet, with which he made five albums; a nonet led by saxophonist Lee Konitz; and a formative berth with the Phil Woods Quintet, which included contributing to seven records. There were also highly fruitful tenures with such titans of the art form such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Bill Evans, and a joint venture with the Sam Jones- Tom Harrell Big Band. All told, Harrell has more than 30 albums to his name as leader, and he has participated in well over 200 recordings as a sideman.
Not only does Harrell dip into a multifarious palette of colors and textures, but he also moves between subgenres and styles with consummate ease. That may, in part, be down to the fact that he imbibed a wide spread of music in his early years.
“I was exposed to music from the 1930s and ‘40s first, so that was [trumpeter] Roy Eldridge, then Dizzy [Gillespie] and Miles [Davis]," says Harrell, also noting that he kept at least half an ear turned to the commercial sounds and vibes of his youth too.
“I grew up in the 1950s, so I was exposed to rock, and it influenced me. Rock ‘n’ roll and jazz have the same roots after all – the blues," he says.
Latin jazz also featured in Harrell’s evolving musical education.
“I’ve always been attracted to Latin music. I was exposed to that early, too. Popular forms of music in the US have been composed and performed by Latin musicians. When I was young, I heard ‘Perfidia’ and ‘Frenesi’ [both written by Mexican composer Alberto Domínguez], for example," he recalls.
Harrell is one of the nimblest players around, mixing textures, styles and rhythms with gay abandon. And, while the quintet is his favored lineup, he also writes for and performs in chamber ensemble and smaller settings. That, says Harrell, keeps him on his toes.
“Every configuration has special and specific requirements from solo, duo, trio and up. So you have to adjust what you do to each size medium. [Working with] larger groups is like painting in oil, and smaller group is like a sketch that has the potential to have more transparency. But, of course, you can create qualities of a small group with an orchestra and vice versa," he says.
It also helps to have an intimate knowledge of the players you are writing for, and maintaining the kernel of a working band over the years – a rarity in the jazz sphere – is a boon. Harrell will share the Opera House stage with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, altoist Jaleel Shaw, bass player Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake, all of whom were members of the original Colors of a Dream band.
“There’s a good interaction, and it’s nice to have a working group," the trumpeter notes. “There’s an element of trust that develops within a working group, and it’s easier to write specifically for the musicians in the group."
For the Tel Aviv concert, Harrell will also enjoy the talent of guitaristvocalist Lionel Loueke. The band leader says the two quickly discovered the requisite chemistry after a recent gig in New York.
“We played a duo concert together last year – a fund-raiser for the Jazz Gallery in NYC. The idea of the duo came from Rio Sakairi, who is the artistic director of the Jazz Gallery. Playing with Lionel is a rare and amazing experience. Lionel plays exactly what I‘m hearing in my mind," he says.
Harrell’s vast swathe of influences also stretches to this part of the world, and that will come through loud and clear on the trumpeter’s next release.
“I find that Arabic and Indian music are very emotional music," he says. “I’ve been influenced by both in my composing and playing. On my upcoming album called Something Gold, Something Blue, there is a song on which the oud is played by [New York-based Israeli jazz musician] Omer Avital.
Like the proverbial top-class wine, Harrell seems to improve with age and continues to maintain a blistering performing and recording pace. He puts that down to maturity, accrued life experience, an increasing sense of ease, and having more to say.
“I guess I feel less inhibited to express myself as I grow older," he notes.
Tom Harrell will perform on January 8 at 10 p.m. at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets: (03) 692-777 and www.israel-opera.co.il