Tom Harrell on cover of New York City Jazz Record

Harrell is featured in an interview conducted by Ken Dryden

HUTCHERSON 1941-2016
by ken dryden
Tom Harrell is among the most heralded jazz trumpeters and flugelhornists active today. His harmonically sophisticated compositions are noteworthy for their strong melodies and continue to surprise listeners as he pushes into new frontiers as a composer.
The California native was exposed to a lot of music at home before he began trumpet studies at the age of eight. He explained, “I liked the sound of the horn." He was already playing jazz by the time he joined his high school band, where the director recognized his potential and helped him broaden his horizons. Harrell recalled, “He shared voicings with me and things like Quincy Jones’ score for ‘Stockholm Sweetnin’." Playing at jam sessions in San Francisco’s North Beach helped him polish his craft and led him to play flugelhorn as well. He also studied with saxophonists John Handy and Lee Konitz while still in his teens.
Entering Stanford University as a music composition major, Harrell was mentored by his trumpet professor Charles Bubb, who played in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Bubb helped him with phrasing and Harrell played alongside him in the orchestra. After graduation, Harrell focused on a full- time career as a performer. He joined Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, then toured with Woody Herman’s big band and the jazz fusion group Azteca. But it was his four- plus years with pianist Horace Silver (1973-77) that especially inspired the young musician. “He was the most influential leader and he had a global perspective in his composing," says Harrell, a trait that has long been evident in his own work.
Bassist Sam Jones invited Harrell to co-lead a big band in 1978, then he spent time with the Konitz Nonet, followed by stints with George Russell and also the Mel Lewis Orchestra, while also appearing on records by Gerry Mulligan and Bill Evans. While playing in Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble in 1976, he met alto saxophonist Phil Woods and his exposure as part of the Phil Woods Quintet (1983-89) solidified his reputation as a soloist and composer. The late alto saxophonist was enthusiastic to interviewers in his praise of Harrell, stating, “I’ve played with some great musicians and I’ve never played with anyone better than Tom Harrell. I think the whole group sounds better because of him." Harrell enjoyed his time in the band and recalled, “Phil Woods encouraged my writing by playing and recording my compositions. He encouraged my playing, too. It was with his band that I also got to play with [fellow trumpeters] Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard."
Unlike many of today’s young artists, who rush to record as leaders before finishing college or working with veterans, Harrell waited. “I already had experiences as a sideperson so that helped shape me. I recorded my first album under my own name, Aurora, when I was 30, in 1976," six potent originals featuring tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, who had played alongside him in Silver’s band. Harrell LPs started appearing on a regular basis in the mid ‘80s on Criss Cross, SteepleChase, Blackhawk and Contemporary
while his prolific composing output provided a growing catalogue of material. Briefly co-leading a quintet with the late Swiss alto saxophonist George Robert when he wasn’t touring with Woods, by the early ‘90s, Harrell focused on leading his own bands and recording his music, releasing a series of diverse albums for RCA and HighNote.
Harrell’s strengths as a composer are his melodic sense and diversity of approach. Although most of the trumpeter’s recent CDs are filled with his originals, there remains a lot more music he has yet to record. “I have notebooks full of sketches. I try to spend most of my time practicing or writing. But I do spend a little time listening to CDs. Of course, when I go outside of the house, I hear music on sound systems, at the airport and in the car service. I like to hear different kinds of music and contemporary music in film scores and on the internet. It’s good to listen to new music because it keeps evolving and people keep coming up with new ways of playing and writing. Composing for me is a life experience and I do it different ways. I don’t always think of the instrumentation first, but sometimes I do. Sometimes it’s the chords or orchestration. It’s like making love, you make love different ways."
Harrell has long been recognized for his clear, incisive sound on both trumpet and flugelhorn and excellent sight-reading skill. He developed this reputation because, “I practice a lot. To get the sound I have, I need to practice. One of my idols was Clifford Brown and he practiced a lot, so I respect that. My other influences are Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Shavers, Howard McGhee and Jonah Jones." As far as composers, Harrell credits the work of “film score composers like Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of others, there are so many. I am drawn to their individuality, their search for individual expression."
The leader is excited about his recent HighNote release, Something Gold, Something Blue. “It’s the first time I’ve recorded with this combination of instrumentation: two trumpets, guitar, bass and drums. It’s also the first time I’ve had oud on my album. Omer Avital plays on ‘Delta of the Nile’. He sounds fantastic. Having two trumpets in the group produces a unique sound. The voicings are different; the two trumpets bring out certain colors. Guitar has a horn-like sound in a way, so it blends well with the two trumpets. I love [trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire’s playing. He has awareness of the tradition and extends the tradition. He also has a beautiful sound. I hear echoes of greats in his playing like Clifford Brown and Booker Little. He has depth of feeling as well. I had fun writing for this project. I wanted to bring out different qualities of Ambrose’s playing. Ugonna Okegwo has a unique style. He does not sound like anyone else. He has a good groove and he is a musical soloist. He is an ideal bass player for my music. We’ve been playing together in my various projects—different iterations of the quintet and chamber ensembles, octet, sextet with two
basses called Colors of a Dream, TRIP and now this band—for about 20 years. [Drummer] Johnathan Blake has also played in my various groups for about ten years. So while this group is new, it’s a hybrid in a sense. I knew Ambrose and guitarist Charles Altura have played together a lot and have a good rapport."
Harrell constantly plans for future releases. The trumpeter explained, “The most immediate project will be a quartet recording with [pianist] Danny Grissett, Ugonna and [drummer] Adam Cruz. It’s actually the first time I’ll be making a quartet with trumpet/piano/bass/drums under my own name. I have a huge backlog of music that may have been performed live at some point but never recorded. I also wrote a few new pieces this month for this project. We will be recording at a studio in Pompignan [in southern France] in a couple of weeks after playing a few gigs in Europe. Since I write every day, I have no shortage of material that could be used for a variety of projects. I’ve also started to write specifically for a trumpet choir, but this project may take some time to complete. I make a point of trying to write music that is accessible, stimulating and challenging all at the same time."
Harrell is looking forward to the challenge of presenting two different bands at the Village Vanguard this month. “It’s nice to expose different parts of musical personality of everyone in the two groups, including myself. It’s nice to be able to channel the different parts of our musical selves." The first group, with trumpeter Dave Douglas, Charles Altura, Ugonna Okegwo and drummer E.J. Strickland, will be playing together as a unit for the first time. “We all may have played with each other in a different context but never together as a unit," says Harrell. “We will be playing the repertoire from my new release, Something Gold, Something Blue. While I wrote some of the compositions on the album with Ambrose in mind, I am looking forward to playing with Dave and E.J. It’s exciting for me to hear other players interpret my music."
Week two is TRIP with Turner, Okegwo and Cruz. “I’ve had longer associations with the members of TRIP. We’ve played on and off for the last five years, released an album in 2014 and played several weeks in New York and tours in the U.S., Japan and Europe. The longer time together increases group rapport, which is invaluable. It fosters trust and growth." v
For more information, visit Harrell’s Something Gold, Something Blue is at Village Vanguard Oct. 11th-16th and Harrell’s TRIP is there Oct. 18th-23rd. See Calendar.
Recommended Listening:
• Bill Evans—We Will Meet Again
(Warner Brothers, 1979)
• Phil Woods Quintet—Bouquet (Concord, 1987)
• Tom Harrell—Upswing (Chesky, 1993)
• Tom Harrell—Paradise (RCA Bluebird, 2000)
• Tom Harrell—The Time of the Sun (HighNote, 2010) • Tom Harrell—Something Gold, Something Blue
(HighNote, 2015)