Trumpeter Tom Harrell’s often beautiful, always rigorous solos and outstanding writing are the main strengths of his latest release on HighNote, Roman Nights. The album also displays the various influences that have been integrated into his work, from Latin rhythms to film soundtracks, bop, the classic playing of jazz immortals like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane—even animal sounds. There’s nothing overly flashy or particularly surprising, but Harrell and company never resort to rote or detached presentation. Whether it’s ballads or driving pieces, their expositions, interaction and song development is exuberant and extensive, devoid of gimmicks and done in an energetic yet also disciplined and sophisticated manner.
Besides Harrell, whose mid-register playing is especially crisp and overall instrumental command first-rate, the band includes another tremendous soloist in tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and a very solid rhythm section featuring pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake. Escoffery can be fiery or smooth, and when he includes in his work quotes from a major influence (Coltrane on “Study in Sound") he does it so cleverly it doesn’t detract from his own rich statements. Blake and Okegwo constantly add neat rhythmic contributions to pieces without becoming intrusive or neglecting their main duties. When they get solo space or featured moments (“Harvest Song," “Storm Approaching," “Obsession") their playing is prominent and exciting.
The title track and “Bird in Flight" boast wonderful arrangements and masterful playing. Harrell’s enticing work on “Roman Nights" has a romantic tinge, while he tempers the sentimentality on “Bird in Flight" with some dashing and rhythmically fiery passages. Even people who despise the electric piano should enjoy the way it’s implemented within the framework of “Study in Sound," with Grissett both playful and energetic in the patterns he plays and the settings he creates.
The Harrell quintet concludes things with flair on “Year of the Ox," one of the disc’s most assertive pieces. It’s the ideal finishing work, spiced by what is perhaps Harrell’s most edgy playing and continued forceful support from the rhythm section. Roman Nights stands as both a compositional and performance standout for the latest Tom Harrell group, as well as one of the year’s better mainstream dates.