Recent Listening: Tom Harrell
CD: Tom Harrell, Prana Dance (High Note)
The economy, lyricism and ingenuity in Tom Harrell's writing and his trumpet and flugelhorn playing make him one of the most admired musicians in jazz. Not only his contemporaries, but also musicians of younger and older generations are in awe of Harrell's musicianship. When he was a member of Phil Woods' quintet In the 1980s, Woods made the frequently-quoted statement that he had never played with a better musician. With two decades of leadership and growth since then, Harrell has gone on to occupy a position of esteem comparable to that of Woods himself and of Wayne Shorter, two of the few living jazz artists with similar all-'round capability and depth of creativity.
Harrell writes and he plays. As you know if you've seen him at work, there is no show business component to his performance except in the irony that his catatonic state onstage when he's not playing constitutes a kind of riveting non-showmanship. In a marvel of courage, dedication and modern medicine, a man who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia overcomes his condition to create music at the level of genius.
Harrell's Prana Dance, recorded last May, is with the same quartet that made Light On two years earlier. Again, the compositions are all Harrell's. This is one instance in which you won't find me complaining that there are no standard songs. Like Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, Harrell delivers an album full of original works that have substance and will endure. To single out three, "Prana," "Maharaja" and "Ride" have the structural simplicity and harmonic magnetism to stay in the mind after only a hearing or two. Those are characteristics of many of Harrell's compositions.
What he and the increasingly impressive tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery do with these attractive and deceptively simple songs is crucially important to the success of the album. As Neil Tesser points out in his evocative liner notes, you can hear, or feel, Harrell and Escoffery thinking their way through solos. And yet, spontaneity and a sense of discovery dominate the improvisation. The young rhythm section of pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake is splendid. Often when a pianist switches from the Steinway to play electric piano, I clench my teeth. Although I'd rather hear him play the acoustic instrument, Grissett adapts the Fender Rhodes to some of these tunes in a way that makes it the right choice for the material.
Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell and Chet Baker figured in Harrell's education as he developed his conception. If out of fond tribute he occasionally alludes to them in his solos, it is with subtlety, originality and - often - humor. Harrell has long since evolved into an original. In tone, style, choice of notes and the ability to reach his listeners' emotions, he is a worthy successor to his heroes. Prana Dance is an immensely satisfying album.