Tom Harrell | HighNote Records (2009)
By David Adler
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Joined AAJ in 1999
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Following up his 2007 effort Light On (HighNote), trumpeter Tom Harrell continues to document his original compositional voice and uncommonly tight working band with Prana Dance. Again there's the youthful, hungry lineup of tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Johnathan Blake, with long-serving Harrell stalwart Ugonna Okegwo digging in on bass. The material is all original, all new, teeming with harmonic secrets and an uncanny marriage of the simple and complex, not to mention ample possibilities for elaboration in the live setting—as the band proved during a galvanizing Thursday night set at New York's Village Vanguard in April, 2009.
Harrell's quintet is essentially an apprenticeship band, allowing a succession of young sidemen to train at length with a master, just as Harrell did years ago with Horace Silver and Phil Woods. The fruits of that creative exchange in the music can be heard, which Harrell, now 62, manages to keep consistently fresh despite the ravages of mental illness. His singable riffs and odd chromatic patterns have an irresistible logic, posing the knottiest of challenges for improvisers without indulging in difficulty for its own sake. The tangled 5/8 of "Prana," the motific parallelisms and bright swing of "Sequenza," the contrasting funk pulses of "Marching," "Maharaja" and "Ride"; these elements stick firmly in the mind after one listen, a rare quality in modern jazz. At the Vanguard, "Prana" went through half- and double-time swing variations, in a rich departure from the studio take. "Marching," too, seemed to shine more brightly.
Grissett, one of the most promising of today's pianists, plays Fender Rhodes on half of the disc's eight numbers, lending a sonic profile of shadows and mist. It's most dramatic on "The Sea Serpent," the penultimate track, which begins at a ballad tempo and edges into forceful walking swing. Until Escoffery enters with a patient series of half-notes, there are no horns at all. Grissett sketches the harmonic outline in trio mode, allowing us to hear Harrell the composer in starkest relief. There was no Rhodes at the Vanguard, but Grissett evoked similar mysteries with a rubato intro to the ballad "Nighttime".
Harrell's music has always transcended his instrument and yet when he plays, look out. His solos, on trumpet and flugelhorn, pack profound ideas into short timeframes and evince a staggering command of harmony. His performances on Prana Dance are full of surprise, but his tone and attack at the Vanguard, on the up-tempo "Blue News" and the metrically shifting, as-yet-unrecorded Latin piece "Otra," were even stronger. For all his frailty, he remains one of the music's most substantial figures.
Track listing: Marching; Prana; Sequenza; Maharaja; The Call; Ride; The Sea Serpent; In the Infinite.
Personnel: Tom Harrell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wayne Escoffery: soprano and tenor saxophones; Danny Grissett: piano, Fender Rhodes; Ugonna Okegwo: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.