ROMAN NIGHTS review by Richard Kamins

Roman Nights - Tom Harrell (HighNote) - Harrell's 3rd CD for HighNote is also the third consecutive release with his working quintet of Wayne Escoffery (tenor saxophone), Danny Grissett (piano, Fender Rhodes), Ugonna Okegwo (bass) and Johnathan Blake (drums). That the younger musicians understand the ins-and-outs of the leader's music is a foregone conclusion and this collection of 9 originals shines brightly from the opening moments to the final notes.

Over the 4 decades, one has been made aware of the consistent high quality of Harrell's projects, his intense love for melody as well as rhythm and his fine solo work (one of my favorites is his breathy closing statement on David Berkman's "Sense of Loss" - hear it here.)

The title track of this recording is a pretty ballad played as a duet with pianist Grissett. The tune is evocative of summer nights and is more joyful than maudlin - nothing is rushed and the lovely, long, melody line drifts on fine piano chords. Much of the work here is up-tempo, starting with "Storm Approaching", the first cut. The trumpet swoops above Blake's high-powered drums and Okegwo's forceful "walking" bass lines. Escoffery lets loose with a short yet powerful tenor solo that seemingly raises the music to its boiling point.

Grissett's switch to Fender Rhodes on the rhythmical "Obsession" brings to mind Miles Davis and his "Filles de Kilimanjaro" music. Both Harrell and Escoffery ride Blake's insistent drumming, each pushing the percussionist to up the intensity. The intensity drops a bit for Grissett's solo yet listen to Blake continuing to accent the beat on his "ride" cymbal and snare while the bassist holds the bottom with his thick-toned phrases. "Bird in Flight" is one more piece where the Fender Rhodes shapes the overall sound and Harrell's melodic yet percussive melody and frequent chord changes gives the work a feeling that is always "rising", like the birds in the title. "Year of the Ox" closes the CD with another insistent rhythm track - the piece has a a marvelous blend of Chinese and Latin influences and more great work from Blake.

Jazz is definitely not "dead" when an album as inventive and exciting as "Roman Nights" crosses one's desk. Honestly, there are moments when I hit "replay" because the tune was so solid or the solos highly exciting. The CD goes on sale March 23 and the Quintet plays the Village Vanguard from March 30 through April 4. This program sounds great coming through the speakers but would certainly be fun in a live setting. For more information, go to http://tomharrell.com.