Tom Harrell | HighNote Records (2009)
By John Kelman
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.
Despite fighting health issues that would keep most people down and out, Tom Harrell has managed to create a remarkably consistent discography as a leader, in addition to a sizable collection of sessions since first emerging in the early '70s. Still, the trumpeter seems especially invigorated since signing with HighNote for Light On (2007). A true leader of the modern mainstream who works squarely in the tradition while gently pushing the envelope, Harrell's outstanding writing, a tone that could melt butter, and an innate lyricism that, in its own less melancholy fashion, matches that of Kenny Wheeler, makes Prana Dance one of his best albums to date.
Despite the pull of mainstream artists to continue mining standards, Prana Dance remains an all-original set. The writing is so memorable that many of Harrell's songs could easily become contemporary standards, with singable melodies, challenging rhythmic concepts, and harmonic ideas providing plenty of grist for his quintet while remaining eminently accessible. When Harrell enters for the first solo of the set on the initially knotty "Marching," it opens up with near-cathartic expansiveness, drummer Johnathan Blake pushing the pulse forward with a combination of astute reaction and light but relentless groove. The drummer gets the second solo, a brief but near-compositional feature that justifies his becoming increasingly in demand, with eight discs released in 2008 alone, including vibraphonist Joe Locke's effervescent Force of Four (Origin Records).
"Prana" shifts feels, beginning with an implacable 9/4 pattern reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's enduring "Footprints." But it's only the first half of a head that, again, brings some release from the tension created by the opening passage with a simple melody made all the more compelling by Harrell and saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's in-tandem melody. With bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Blake providing an unshakable rhythm section, Harrell takes a solo of more overt virtuosity than that of "Marching," but never loses sight of the song's essence. Escoffery, whose own career has been taking off on albums including the impressive Veneration: Live at Smoke (Savant, 2007), is the perfect foil for Harrell—equally focused but capable of being concurrently visceral and fluid. Danny Grissett, the relative newcomer here, delivers an unforgettable Fender Rhodes solo that combines ethereal abstraction with more grounded thematic concepts.
Lyricism needn't preclude power, however, with the potent "Sequenza" leading off with another challenging head but opening up to some of the hottest, most swinging group interplay of the disc. Harrell, on flugelhorn, is brimming with ideas, while Grissett's acoustic piano solo demonstrates a potential that he's only beginning to realize on his own discs, including the aptly titled Promise (Criss Cross, 2006).
Laying waste to misguided suggestions that mainstream jazz has reached a dead end, the energy and interaction of Harrell's quintet makes Prana Dance bristle with energy and teem with conviction, all the while revering and refreshing the tradition with an unmistakably modernist spin.
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.
Published: April 04, 2009