By John Kelman
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Joined AAJ in 2003
With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, AAJ Managing Editor John Kelman wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.
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Since coming back from hiatus following the superb Wise Children (Bluebird, 2003), Tom Harrell's been on a roll. On a new label (HighNote) and with a new working quartet, the trumpeter has gone from success to success, from the undeniably fine Light On (2007), to the even better Prana Dance (2009). Whether Roman Dances is even better still is a tough call; Harrell's writing and quintet are so uniformly excellent that comparisons—empirical or otherwise—are rendered moot.
There's plenty that resonates on Roman Nights, where the one thing that is certain is that the chemistry amongst the members of Harrell's quintet continues to refine and grow even more empathic with each passing year. The short but completely to the point solos on the aptly titled opener, "Storm Approaching," not only demonstrate the exhilarating interplay between accompanists and soloists, but amongst the accompanists themselves, as drummer Johnathan Blake, in particular, accomplishes the remarkably multi-tasked challenge of responding simultaneously to both pianist Danny Grissett and Wayne Escoffery, during the saxophonist's fiery solo.
But he's not the only one who's clearly listening. Again on the disc opener, as solos are passed—first from Harrell to Escoffery, and then on to Grissett—it's as if the transitions were scored; except, of course, they're not. A final barnstorming solo from Blake, over a driving ostinato, amply explains why the increasingly busy drummer, in addition to his tenure with Harrell, has been finding employment with artists ranging from vibraphonist Joe Locke to septuagenarian saxophonist Oliver Lake. Bassist Ugonna Okegwo, another busy player with modern mainstreamers like Jacky Terrasson, Ari Ambrose and D.D. Jackson, anchors the entire disc with firm but pliant support. Soloing rarely, when he does it's a treat; his extended workout on "Study in Sound," one of Harrell's more complicated charts, is a combination of lithe lyricism and compositional intent.
As impressive as the members of Harrell's quintet are—individually and collectively—it's never about acumen being an end. Instead, it's a clear and focused means for everyone, where rhythmic placement and weaving through Harrell's sometimes rapid, other times more languid changes is all about finding new ways to shape melody. Whether it's on the brief but incendiary modal workout of "Agua," the Latin- esque "Obsession" or bass riff-driven "Let the Children Play," Escoffery—his Wayne Shorter roots clear but equally subsumed as but one parameter of his own voice—and Harrell make a potent frontline that's equally capable of gentle, almost folkloric tranquility on the deceptively simple sounding "Harvest Song," where there's clearly a lot more sophistication going on under the hood.
With even great emphasis on Grissett's Fender Rhodes than ever before, there's an ethereal, dreamlike quality that imbues much of Roman Nights, even at brighter tempos like "Bird in Flight" Throughout, Harrell has never sounded better, his dulcet plangency a reminder that it's not necessary to be oblique in order to be progressive. As with his previous HighNote sets, Roman Nights is another fine entry from one of the contemporary mainstream's most memorable players and telepathically transcendent quintets.
Track listing: Storm Approaching; Let the Children Play; Roman Nights; Study in Sound; Agua; Obsession; Harvest Song; Bird in Flight; Year of the Ox.
Personnel: Tom Harrell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett: piano, Fender Rhodes; Ugonna Okegwo: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.
By John Kelman